Think your computer isn't fast enough or your TV picture still not clear enough? How does faster than the speed of light sound? Or monitors bright enough you'll want your sunglasses?

Well, they're working on it.

Scientists are using the properties inside electrons that spin at an idling speed faster than light to show the way to a new generation of ultra-fast computers and electronics.

That new era just got a a little closer, according to findings published Sunday by a team of University of Utah physicists who managed to successfully switch an electric current on and off using the "spin" within electrons.

The findings are a key step toward "spin transistors" that will lead to the semiconductor switch of the future. The research is a continuation of mapping the properties of electrons, first detected in the 1920s, a breakthrough that has led to so-called "spintronics" and is regarded as critical to understanding the nature of things as the theory of relativity.

Researchers hope to develop computers that are much smaller and faster by using electrons' spin as well as their electrical charge to store and transmit information; the up and down spins of electrons also can represent ones and zeroes in computing.

Computers and other electronics today operate by causing negatively charged electrons to flow as electrical current. In computers, for example, data and information is reduced by transistors to a binary code of ones or zeroes, represented by the presence or absence of electrons in semiconductors.

Getting to that ultra-fast future won't be easy, and will take what amounts to a step back, or at least a reassessment, of a key element in the new electronics: making highly efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) using organic materials. It is going to be more difficult than first thought.

A possible new light of future generations was captured as an orange glow by U. physicists John Lupton and Christoph Boehme using green and blue laser beams to excite a one-twelfth-inch long by one-eighth-inch wide piece of the polymer MEH-PP, a basic component in the LED in new computer screens, telephone displays, DVD players, game consoles, televisions and other electronics.

The researchers note, however, that such LEDs would convert no more than 25 percent of electricity into light rather than heat. The findings contradict earlier estimates that up to 63 percent of electricity would be turned into light.

The finding is not a surprise given the course of quantum mechanics, the most recent frontier of physics that is attempting to describe the behavior of molecules, atoms and subatomic particles.

"This is the first time anyone has done really fundamental, hands-on quantum mechanics with an organic LED," Lupton said in a news release announcing the study. "This is tough stuff."

Lupton and Boehme conducted the study with postdoctoral researcher Dane McCamey and four University of Utah physics doctoral students: Heather Seipel, Seo-Young Paik, Manfred Walter and Nick Borys.

The findings further research published in 2004 in which another team of U. physicists reported building the first organic "spin valve" to control electrical current. In the new study, the researchers showed that information can be carried by spins in an organic polymer, and that a spin transistor is possible because "we can convert the spin information into a current, and manipulate it and change it," Lupton said.

"Even the smallest transistor today consists of hundreds of thousands of atoms," says Boehme. "The ultimate goal of miniaturization is to implement electronics on the scale of atoms and electrons."

The new research reveals an old shadow on deciphering the nature of light — light bulbs put out more heat than light. (The lamps over the row of french fries at the fast food place aren't there to brighten their appearance but to keep them hot.)

LEDs these days can convert 47 percent to 64 percent of incoming electricity into white light rather than waste heat. But efforts to replace incandescent and even compact fluorescent light bulbs with LEDs have been hindered by costs exceeding $100 per LED bulb.

"Doping" or adding other chemicals to organic semiconductors to make them more efficient might lead to organic LED efficiencies above 25 percent, but new research dims that hope.

Organic LEDs' greatest promise is not lighting but in revamping liquid crystal display (LCD) technology in modern televisions and computer screens. Boehme believes organic LEDs will be much cheaper, can be made on flexible materials, have a wider viewing angle and color range and will be more energy efficient than LCDs.


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