Tiny computers go where no computer has gone before

September 07, 2005

A major breakthrough in the use of molecules as information processors is to be announced at this year's BA Festival of Science in Dublin.

Nanotechnology experts are exploring the capabilities of molecules that act like conventional computers but can operate in tiny places where no silicon-based chip or semiconductor can go. Now, for the first time, they have used these molecules to perform logic operations and process information in spaces a few nanometres across.

This advance has been achieved by chemists at Queen's University Belfast, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Professor Amilra de Silva, Chair of Organic Chemistry at the university, says: "Computing isn't just confined to semiconductors. Molecules have been processing information ever since life has been around on our planet. Harnessing this remarkable ability really does have the potential to make a big difference to people's lives."

Molecular information processors placed in nano-spaces can gather, process and supply valuable data on how chemistry and biology function at this tiny scale. Molecules can also be used as information processors in medical and other applications. Portable blood gas analysers incorporating early breakthroughs in this field are already in use, with total sales of relevant sensor components already reaching US$35 million.

When the right chemical inputs (e.g. sodium or potassium ions) and ultra-violet, blue, green or red light are applied, the artificial molecules used by the team respond by emitting light. This 'signal' can be analysed using a fluorescence spectrometer or even the eye to provide data about the molecule's environment. Different types of these information processors respond to different chemical inputs and different colours of light.

The underlying principle is based on photosynthesis - the process whereby plants use sunlight to produce food for themselves and for us - and is known as photo-induced electron transfer (PET). In PET, light causes electrons to move from one place to another. The speed of this process can be controlled by chemical means.

The Queen's University Belfast team is now focusing on improving the complexity of the logic operations that can be performed. Professor de Silva will be discussing the team's work and illustrating current capabilities at the BA Festival on 7th September.
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Notes for Editors

Nanotechnology involves manipulating materials on a very small scale to build microscopic machines. The prefix 'nano' in 'nanotechnology' means one thousand-millionth (10-9). A nanometre, for example, is one thousand-millionth of a metre.

Professor de Silva's team primarily works with artificial, man-made molecules. This is easier than working with the much more sophisticated natural molecules which perform information processing tasks in living organisms (e.g. running intracellular reaction pathways) that help keep such organisms alive. All the molecules used are of the type that has a fluorescent section (i.e. they emit light when excited by another, higher-energy form of light).

A semiconductor or 'chip' is a material such as silicon that conducts electricity, although not as well as copper, aluminium and other metals. They play a key role in computers, mobile phones and many other products.

This year's BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) Festival of Science takes place in Dublin from 3rd -10th September. The event is one of the UK's biggest science festivals and attracts around 400 of the best scientists and science communicators from home and abroad who reveal the latest developments in research to a general audience. For more information visit www.the-ba.net.

Professor Amilra de Silva will be talking about "Luminescent Molecules as Information Processors" from 10.00 to 12.00 on 7th September at Joly LT, Hamilton Building. Professor de Silva will also be taking part in a press conference at 09.00 on 7th September where he will be discussing his work. Professor David Leigh of Edinburgh University, with whom Professor de Silva has worked extensively in the past, will be talking about "Tooling Up for the Nanoworld: The Magic of Molecular Machines" on the same day and will also be taking part in the same press conference.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: www.epsrc.ac.uk/

For more information, contact:

Professor Amilra de Silva, Queen's University Belfast, tel: 0289-097-4422, e-mail: a.desilva@qub.ac.uk

Jane Reck, EPSRC Press Officer, tel: 44-179-344-4312, e-mail: jane.reck@epsrc.ac.uk

Craig Brierley, Press Officer, British Association for the Advancement of Science, tel: 44-207-019-4947, e-mail: Craig.Brierley@the-ba.net

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

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