Solid-state insights yield physics Nobel

Work that broke ground for today’s information superhighway also paved the way to a Nobel prize.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics to three scientists and inventors whose work “laid the foundation of modern information technology, IT, particularly through their invention of rapid transistors, laser diodes, and integrated circuits.”

The academy bestowed one-half of the Nobel award upon Jack St. Clair Kilby, an electrical engineer retired from Texas Instruments in Dallas. It recognized his part in the invention and development of the integrated circuit. Kilby joined Texas Instruments in 1958 and that same year conceived of and built the first electronic circuit that contained all of its components on a single piece of semiconducting material.

That device was smaller than a postage stamp. Other researchers further miniaturized circuits and crammed more and more of them onto a single chip. Thus, Kilby’s work spurred the electronic revolution that led to the personal computer, myriad communications devices, and even chip-controlled toasters.

Kilby, who still consults at Texas Instruments, told Science News that it’s been interesting to see all of the new applications for his invention. In 1958, he says, the electronics industry consisted of “radio, TV, and maybe a half-dozen computers.”

The other half of the prize went jointly to Zhores I. Alferov of the A.F. Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Herbert Kroemer of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Alferov and Kroemer earned their award for parallel but independent work. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, each developed layered semiconductor devices known as heterostructures.

“This is tremendously gratifying, the ultimate recognition by people you consider to be your peers,” Kroemer told Science News. “I’ve yet to recover my balance.”

By tailoring the thickness and chemical composition of the crystalline layers in the heterostructures, researchers have yet another way to control the distribution and flow of electrons through circuitry, explains Kroemer. Heterostructures have led to dramatic improvements in semiconductor performance and enabled scientists to develop devices that would be impossible to fabricate with a single material, he adds.

Manufacturers today build heterostructures into many electronic devices vital to modern communications, including the low-noise, high-frequency signal amplifiers common in satellites and mobile telephones. Semiconductor lasers based on heterostructures make possible today’s bar-code readers, the heads that read compact discs and similar media, and fiberoptic communication systems.

The developments recognized by this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics have been a driving force behind the transition from an industrial to an information-based society, according to the Swedish academy.

“These are clearly ideas that now have enormous commercial importance,” says Thomas N. Theis, director of physical sciences at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

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