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Aren’t smartphones small enough? If they get much smaller than they are now, soon users won’t be able to use the keypad. And tablets are about as small as they can get without sacrificing functionality. Maybe we’ve finally gone as far as small can go without getting ridiculous?

Most mobile devices may have reached the size limits imposed by the need to maintain a workable human-machine interface and that elusive balance between functionality and portability. But the race to miniaturize their internal workings hasn’t slowed down in the least.

New research from Vanderbilt University has yielded some of the smallest nanowires ever made. At an astonishing three atoms across, these wires are so small that they open up new horizons in miniaturization. Smartphones that can be folded like a piece of paper. Flexible, bendable pages and screens.

The striking new technology was revealed in a Computerworld article about Junhao Lin, a doctoral student and visiting scientist at Oak Ridges National Laboratory in Tennessee. Lin has figured out how to use a focused beam of electrons to create nanowires that are way smaller than any created so far.

The nanowires he has produced are just 0.4 nanometres across, instead of the 50 to 100 nanometres typical of the nanowires devised so far. To put it in perspective, that’s about one one-thousandth the thickness of the wires used in today’s integrated computer circuits.

Researchers have already created functioning transistors and flash memory gates out the same material Lin used (“transition-metal dichalcogenides,” since you asked).

The new nanowires are built not on their own, but rather they’re formed into a honeycomb lattice of atoms whose properties include electricity, strength and heat conduction. Since the transistors and flash memory gates are created in the same lattice, the nanowires can easily be connected with them.

“Looking to the future, we can create a flexible two-dimensional material,” said Sokrates Pantelides, Lin’s adviser and Vanderbilt’s Distinguished Professor of Physics and Engineering. “You could potentially have screens or pages that are flexible like a sheet of paper. You might be able to fold them and then open them up to see the screen. The material is flexible already because it’s just one layer of atoms.”

For his part, Lin says he expects his discovery to stimulate massive research interest in monolayer circuit design.

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