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Molecular scale electronics, also called single molecule electronics, is a branch of nanotechnology that uses single molecules, or nanoscale collections of single molecules, as electronic components. Because single molecules constitute the smallest stable structures imaginable, this miniaturization is the ultimate goal for shrinking electrical circuits.
Conventional electronic devices are traditionally made from bulk materials. The bulk approach has inherent limitations in addition to becoming increasingly demanding and expensive. Thus, the idea was born that the components could instead be built up atom for atom in a chemistry lab (bottom up) as opposed to carving them out of bulk material (top down). In single molecule electronics, the bulk material is replaced by single molecules. That is, instead of creating structures by removing or applying material after a pattern scaffold, the atoms are put together in a chemistry lab. The molecules utilized have properties that resemble traditional electronic components such as a wire, transistor or rectifier.
Single molecule electronics is an emerging field, and entire electronic circuits consisting exclusively of molecular sized compounds are still very far from being realized. However, the continuous demand for more computing power together with the inherent limitations of the present day lithographic methods make the transition seem unavoidable. Currently, the focus is on discovering molecules with interesting properties and on finding ways to obtaining reliable and reproducible contacts between the molecular components and the bulk material of the electrodes.
Molecular electronics operates in the quantum realm of distances less than 100 nanometers. Miniaturization down to single molecules brings the scale down to a regime where quantum effects are important. As opposed to the case in conventional electronic components, where electrons can be filled in or drawn out more or less like a continuous flow of charge, the transfer of a single electron alters the system significantly. The significant amount of energy due to charging has to be taken into account when making calculations about the electronic properties of the setup and is highly sensitive to distances to conducting surfaces nearby.
One of the biggest problems with measuring on single molecules is to establish reproducible electrical contact with only one molecule and doing so without shortcutting the electrodes. Because the current photolithographic technology is unable to produce electrode gaps small enough to contact both ends of the molecules tested (in the order of nanometers) alternative strategies are put into use. These include molecular-sized gaps called break junctions, in which a thin electrode is stretched until it breaks. Another method is to use the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) to contact molecules adhered at the other end to a metal substrate. Another popular way to anchor molecules to the electrodes is to make use of sulfur's high affinity to gold; though useful, the anchoring is non-specific and thus anchors the molecules randomly to all gold surfaces, and the contact resistance is highly dependent on the precise atomic geometry around the site of anchoring and thereby inherently compromises the reproducibility of the connection. To circumvent the latter issue, experiments has shown that fullerenes could be a good candidate for use instead of sulfur because of the large conjugated π-system that can electrically contact many more atoms at once than a single atom of sulfur.
One of the biggest hindrances for single molecule electronics to be commercially exploited is the lack of techniques to connect a molecular sized circuit to bulk electrodes in a way that gives reproducible results. Also problematic is the fact that some measurements on single molecules are carried out in cryogenic temperatures (close to absolute zero) which is very energy consuming.
Read more about this topic: Molecular Electronics
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