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Thin Is In For Itsy-Bitsy Wires

Scientists are slicing wires down to microscopic levels that promise to shrink devices and speed transmissions.
The tinier, the faster. When it comes to transmitting electrons in networks and small devices, scientists all over the world are slicing wires down to microscopic levels that promise to shrink devices and speed transmissions.

Nanowires are the subject of experiments at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, where chemist John Smalley is working with Stanford University researchers on what they hope will be organic, single-molecule wires that are millions of times smaller than a human hair.

Nanowires have high rates of electron transfer with very low resistance, and could be used in devices such as network switches or molecular computers. "The smaller the electron element, the faster you can go," Smalley says. Nanowires currently functioning in labs are about 2,000 times thinner than a human hair. They consist of a long string of silicon atoms surrounded by organic molecules. Smalley anticipates that nanowire technology will be available in devices within a decade.

At the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Gsttingen, Germany, scientists have figured out how to trim the cobwebs made by the black widow spider to about 5% of their normal size for possible use in nanowires. In nature, those spider-silk threads are between 3 micrometers and 5 micrometers wide and are strong and extremely flexible. By firing ultraviolet laser pulses at the web silk from different directions, researchers at the institute have been able to shave the wires down to 100 nanometers while maintaining that flexibility. They hope to produce a nanowire of that width that's a meter long. If the threads can be coated with conducting metal, they would create a thinner and far sturdier nanowire than the stuff that's commonly used in silicon-based nanowire.