When today's latest microprocessors hit the wall in about 20 years time, new materials now in the development stages will be waiting to replace them.
Researchers at the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Manchester, have used the world's thinnest material to create the smalles transister – one that is just one atom thick and 50 atoms wide.
Professor Andre Geim and Dr Kostya Novoselov believe this innovation will allow the rapid miniaturisation of electronics to continue when the current silicon-based technology runs out of steam.
With Moore's Law driving faster and cheaper computing, the industry is having to cram more and more transistors on to chips – and, although new materials being used in 45nm processes will delay the inevitable, eventually they will simply run out of space.
Two years ago, Prof Geim and his team discovered a new class of materials that can be viewed as individual atomic planes pulled out of bulk crystals.
Graphene – a gauze of carbon atoms resembling a chicken wire – has been used to make transistors just 3nm wide and suitable for use in future computer chips.
All other known materials, including silicon, oxidise, decompose and become unstable at sizes tens times larger.
"We have made ribbons only a few nanometres wide and cannot rule out the possibility of confining graphene even further — down to maybe a single ring of carbon atoms," says Professor Geim.
The research team suggests that future electronic circuits can be carved out of a single graphene sheet. Such circuits would include the central element or 'quantum dot', semitransparent barriers to control movements of individual electrons, interconnects and logic gates — all made entirely of graphene.
Prof Geim's team have proved this idea by making a number of single-electron-transistor devices that work under ambient conditions and show a high-quality transistor action.
The researchers don't believe that graphene-based circuits will come of age before 2025, but represents the only viable alternative once silicon hits the wall.