To make computers faster, it’s necessary to boost the speed of transistors, the tiny switches that make up the fundamental building blocks of the machine. Although conventional silicon transistors can perform billions of calculations per second, scientists found a different material that can do trillions of calculations per second. The experiments could one day lead to personal supercomputers that fit on desks.

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The material the researchers used is magnetite, the same stuff used in recording data onto disks and analog tape. In experiments conducted by at the U.S. Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, scientists hit a sample of magnetite with a laser, which caused electrons in the material’s atoms to become either electrically conductive or non-conductive. Having two different kinds of electrons allows for binary code, the 1s and 0s that make the basic “alphabet” of computers.

The two different kinds of electrons also arranged themselves differently, with small “islands” of non-conducting magnetite surrounded by electrically conductive regions.

Right after that, the scientists shot the material with an ultra-short X-ray pulse. The X-ray pulse let the research team analyze how fast it took the magnetite to change from a non-conducting to an electrically conducting state, as well as see what shape the molecules took as they switched.

They discovered that the rearrangement formed in only a billionth of a billionth of a second.

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Although the experiment showed that magnetite is a fast switch, it had to be conducted at a cool 310 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. That’s not exactly practical for real life situations. So the next step will be to find a way to get the switch to happen at room temperature. It’s also possible that another material other than magnetite would work better. And because this current experiment established a “speed limit” for other oxide-based electronics, scientists know what to look for.

The study is in this week’s issue of the journal Nature Materials.

via: Nature Materials, SLAC

Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC