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Researchers take initial step toward much faster computing

University Of Chicago : 02 May, 2003  (Technical Article)
Computer processing speed is constantly improving, but researchers at the University of Chicago have taken the first step toward creating an entirely new magnitude of computing called optical computing that would make today's fiber optics networks look poky.
Think back to the computer in '2001: A Space Odyssey.' HAL 9000 came to think like a living being, even if a malevolent one, and as he was disassembled, his innards glowed like optics.

A friendlier, more hopeful optical-computing vision is a long way from reality, but university professors are excited that they have managed a huge biotech boost in nanoelectronics.

To get this far, the researchers experimented with yeast prions--harmless nanometer-scale cousins of the proteins that cause Alzheimer's disease. The prions self-assemble, much like Lego blocks, to create durable fibers with new chemical functions.

Researchers at the university's Institute for Biophysical Dynamics and its Materials Research Science & Engineering Center used genetically engineered fibers that could bond with specially prepared gold nanoparticles.

That is important because it demonstrated that each fiber acts as a scaffold, which could ultimately be turned into a conducting wire.

Such a wire could be used as a conduit for either electrical data or optical data, and by its very nature would be tiny and super-speedy.

The hope is that the wires could be connected to form a network, and that the network could be interfaced with existing technology.

'The main advantage would be that the density of information that could be transmitted or stored could be dramatically increased,' said Heinrich Jaeger, director of the research center and a professor of physics at the Hyde Park university.

The research broke new ground because it turned conventional thinking on its head. Traditional research looks at nanofabrication much like a sculptor chisels a shape from a lump of clay. This research showed that nanofabrication techniques could be fashioned like Lego blocks, starting with tiny pieces that can be put together the way researchers want.

'We have whole new possibilities with this 'bottom-up' approach, instead of the 'top-down' approach,' said Jaeger.

An important partner in the research is geneticist Susan Lindquist, a former Chicago professor who is now director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

The research team was part of a larger collaboration, financed with a $2 million award from the W.M. Keck Foundation obtained by Chicago chemistry professor Norbert Scherer, an expert in ultra-fast and nano-optics. The research team also includes Milan Mrksich, a chemistry professor whose specialty is bio-organic and surface chemistry, and David Grier, a professor of physics.

Scherer saw the potential of using the yeast-derived proteins, rather than DNA-based nano-materials, to transport electric current.

'Proteins offer much greater diversity in terms of the structures one could create,' Scherer said.

Jaeger noted that the breakthrough comes with a bonus: It exemplifies a new kind of collaboration between the physical and biological sciences--a development that students should heed.

'To work at the forefront of science, in nanoscience and technology, students need to look beyond a single discipline,' he said.
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