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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging Science Note/Diatoms

Air Date: Week of February 29, 2008

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Diatoms are unicellular algae. This Thalassiosira pseudonana has a hard outer shell of silica. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy)

Sea algae may be the key to faster computer chips. Living on Earth’s Margaret Rossano reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Just ahead, why frogs have nothing to celebrate this Leap Year. But first this note on emerging science from Margaret Rossano.

ROSSANO: The pioneers of Silicon Valley probably never imagined that the key to faster computers might lie in algae – the simple, plant-like organisms that create red tides and make your fish tank murky.

But some scientists now think that diatoms - a kind of algae that lives in the ocean - might help them build speedier computer chips.

  

Diatoms are unicellular algae. This Thalassiosira pseudonana has a hard outer shell of silica. (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy)

So how could they do this? As the name Silicon Valley implies, silicon is a key element used to make computer chips. Diatoms build their cell walls out of silica, a related compound also used in the chip-making process. Now, researchers report that it may be possible to genetically control the way one species of diatom produces silica. Scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Washington have identified the genes in charge of silica production in one of the world’s smallest diatoms that is shaped like a hatbox.

Genetic control of silica production could be a major breakthrough when it comes to manufacturing computer chips. Currently, the circuit patterns on chips are cut with beams of ultra violet light, but diatoms could produce much finer lines. More lines mean room for even more transistors—the millions of tiny electrical switches that are the building blocks of computer chips—and a faster chip overall.

The research team hopes they can control and guide the diatoms silica-making, so that someday these microscopic algae can help produce a faster computer for you.

And that’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Margaret Rossano.

CURWOOD: Coming up- emerging science of the brain and some unexpected perils of poverty. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

 

 

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