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Spring 2000

Speed Demon
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Everyone involved, including the funding agents in Washington, seems excited about the work. In part, because Heath and Williams have pointed out that such molecular-sized computers seem to promise a billion-fold increase in efficiency over today's silicon-chip devices, which are reaching barriers in speed and efficiency set by fundamental physical limits. As silicon devices get smaller and smaller, they begin to edge into a realm in which quantum-mechanical effects become important. To pass this quantum-mechanical barrier requires devices that are inherently quantum mechanical, which is not the case with silicon semiconductors but is with molecular switches. "The devices have to be based on completely different physics from what current semiconductor devices are based on," says Williams, "and built out of totally different types of stuff. Almost certainly molecules. So we have this dual dilemma: We have to both create entirely new device types and entirely new ways of making them. That's the basis behind the work Jim and I are doing with HP right now."

Heath calls the promise of molecular computers "fantastically amazing," and adds that "it's very rare in any physical science that you see an operational improvement of a billion that's just waiting there to be tapped." Molecular-scale computers hold the promise of putting the calculating ability of today's most powerful supercomputers in a chip the size of a grain of sand. The potential applications are limited only by the power of the imagination.

For Heath, it's made his dedication to his science even more intense than it was. Despite having two children, a wife who is a doctor and his own obsession with music, Heath gets into the laboratory at 4:30 or 5 a.m. and works until seven in the evening. He'll put in another four or five hours on Saturday and Sunday. Sleeping only five hours helps leave time for his family, although not as much as he would like.

"It seems kind of insane," he admits. "There's really no excuse for it. But I really want to make this computer happen. I want to see it get built. It would be great if it changed the world, and I think we have a legitimate chance."

Gary Taubes is a freelance writer . . . more TK

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