Huge power boost from small changes: Move an atom of arsenic

Plugging tiny holes in microprosessors yields big changes

Think you or one of your colleagues is good at tuning a server to get the absolute best performance out of it? Do you have a team of specialists constantly monitoring and tweaking resources and resource-sharing among virtual server farms to keep all your apps running at top speed?

Do you wear matching firesuits and helmets and leap over tiny walls when someone drives a server in for a quick gas-n-go in the middle of a batch run?

A couple of physicists at Ohio State University have that beat in ways that are unbelievably small but could give a huge boost in power to microprocessors.

The substrate of a microprocessor -- the "silicon" into which microcircuits are cut, gallium arsenide in this case -- looks smooth to the eye. Looking through a scanning tunneling electron microscope shows there are gaps and holes where individual atoms would fit, but aren't.

The holes are considered to be defects. Moving atoms of arsenic or other chemical impurities can dramatically change the performance and behavior of the processor by changing electrical fields in both their new location and the holes from which they've been moved.

"The effect we discovered is probably already going on inside the devices we use every day -- it's just not being controlled," principal researcher Jay Gupta told Ohio State University's Research News.

A report on the discovery will be published in an upcoming issue of Science.

The technique isn't a practical way of tuning microprocessors right now, but may lead to completely different ways to change electrical currents, boost processing power, shrink the size of microprocessors in the future and possibly pave the way for practical quantum computers as well, Gupta said.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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