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IBM has created the world's smallest torch -- 50,000 times thinner than a human hair.

The achievement, reported by Science magazine, at first glance may seem to be outside the remit of IBM's normal work, but in fact, the microscopic light source could one day become critical in devices that use light to transmit data, as is currently the case in optical fibre networks.

All over the world, scientists are looking to replace silicon as the foundation for microchips, since most agree that in ten to 15 years, it will be extremely difficult to improve silicon chip performance. So-called "nanotubes," such as the new IBM torch, are thought to be a possible solution to the problem because they will effectively allow for microscopic chips to be built.

A nanotube is essentially a sheet of graphite rolled into a cylinder forming a single molecule. These molecules, depending on how they are arranged, can function as metals or semiconductors, making them the perfect material for futuristic chips and electronic devices.

Since light is the foundation for high-speed communications -- as it is able to carry more information per second than electrical wires -- the company is arguing that someday these light-emitting nanotubes could be used in computers for a quicker exchange of more information between a microprocessor, which itself may consist of millions of nanotubes, and a memory chip.

This latest development comes four years after IBM built the first nanotube field-effect transistors, a component in the construction of computer chips that controls the flow of electrical current. A couple of years later, IBM scientists said they had created logic gates, another component of microchips that are used to form the basic circuits in computing.

According to IBM, the creation of the world's first electrically controlled, single-molecule light emitter demonstrates the company's "rapidly improving understanding of molecular devices."

"By further understanding the electrical properties of carbon nanotubes through their light emission, IBM is accelerating the development path for their electronic applications, as well as possible optical applications," said Dr Phaedon Avouris, manager of nanoscale science, IBM Research. "Nanotube light emitters have the potential to be built in arrays or integrated with carbon nanotube or silicon electronic components, opening new possibilities in electronics and optoelectronics." © ENN

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