Scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories yesterday announced what they consider to be "a fundamental advance in solid-state technology" - a doubling of the speed at which electrons move through semiconductors.
The breakthrough could mean a faster computer, a microwave circuit that can carry much more information, or a stereo receiver that operate on less power.
In short, the increased ability of electrons to move through semiconductors - devies that lie at the heart of the modern electronics revolution - increases capacity and reduces power needs.
The breakthough "could become a generalized technique for enhancing the performance of a wide variety of devices at the core of modern technology," according to the Bell Labs' announcement.
Semiconductors are materials that conduct electricity better than insulators, like glass, but not as well as metals, like copper.
They are useful because their electrical properties can be exactly controlled by the addition of microscopic impurities, like silicon atoms, thus allowing complex electronic paths to be exactly traced on extremely small surfaces.
A description of the new technique is contained in an article in the current issue of "Applied Physics Letters," written by Bell scientists Raymond Dingle, Horst Stormer, Arthur Gossard and William Wiegmann. The jornal is published by the American Institute of Physics.
The technique described involves isolating electrons for unobstructed movement by putting down alternate layers of ultra-thin semiconductor material like gallium arsenide and aluminum gallium arsenide.
The electrons, following the laws of physics, move to the layer which lets them rest in the lowest possible energy state - in this case gallium arsenide. They are thus removed from the positively charged silicon impurities which try to recapture the electrons in present semiconductors and thus tend to slow them down.
The scientists said the new layering technique doubles the speed of electrons at room temperature and increases by as much as a factor of 20 at lower temperatures.
The key to the advance was a decade-old Bell Labs breakthrough called molecular beam epitaxy which allows experimenters to build crystals one layer of atoms at a time.
This permitted the buildup of a crystal with alternating layers that are each only 50 atoms thick.
The article says that any two semiconductor materials with related conductivity properties like gallium arsenide and aluminum gallium arsenide can be used.
Moreover, applications of the new technique could come in totally unexpected areas, and not just in improved efficiency of existing devices.
"This really has the potential for tatally new devices," said Stormer, "because for the first time, layers of semiconductors can interact in three dimensions."