The past 70 years have seen the way we live and work transformed by two tiny inventions. The electronic transistor and the microchip are what make all modern electronics possible, and since their development in the 1940s they have been getting smaller. Today, one chip can contain as many as 5 billion transistors. If cars had followed the same development pathway, we would now be able to drive them at 300,000mph and they would cost just £3 each.
But to keep this progress going we need to be able to create circuits on the extremely small, nanometre scale. A nanometre (nm) is one billionth of a metre and so this kind of engineering involves manipulating individual atoms. We can do this, for example, by firing a beam of electrons at a material, or by vaporising it and depositing the resulting gaseous atoms layer by layer onto a base.
The real challenge is using such techniques reliably to manufacture working nanoscale devices. The physical properties of matter, such as its melting point, electrical conductivity and chemical reactivity, become very different at the nanoscale, so shrinking a device can affect its performance. If we can master this technology, however, then we have the opportunity to improve not just electronics but all sorts of areas of modern life.
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