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Top Greek scientist is sitting right where the chips fall

The computers of the future – smarter, faster and minuscule – will owe much of their existence to the inspiration and persistence of a Greek scientist, 56-year-old Faidonas Avouris, who is at the helm of the IBM scientific team. He is pioneering the use of carbon crystals to replace the materials from which computer chips are currently made. The new science is expected to lead to the development of a new generation of computers. The Greek scientist, head of IBM’s nanotechnology laboratory, dropped in at Kathimerini’s offices recently while on a visit to Athens. Affable, both a skeptic and a visionary, he explained in comprehensible layman’s terms the advantages of the new revolutionary technology, which is the product of his laboratory. Until today, electronics has been based on the so-called silicone chip. But faster computers with larger memories are developed every 18 months. We would have reached the limits of currently used materials in 10-15 years’ time. Thus we began to search for a replacement material, and we took advantage of a discovery made in Japan in 1991, that of carbon nanotubes. These are structures made of a handful of hexagonal series of carbon atoms. To give you an idea of what sizes we are talking about, a nanometer (one billionth of a meter) is 100,000 times thinner than a human hair. Carbon nanotubes are 10 times stronger than steel and have the properties of metals – that is, they are good conductors of electricity. We worked hard for four years, and in 1998 we created the first transistor which we are trying to perfect today, explained Avouris. The new chip The building blocks of all electronic devices are complex combinations of the three different types of logic gates, AND, NOT and OR (a logic gate is defined as a circuit with one output which is activated by certain combinations of two or more inputs). Logic gates are made from two types of crystal transistors, which are placed along a fiber and produce electric signals. As we have successfully completed the experimental stage, I am hopeful that in two years’ time we will feel greater certainty over the results of this work and we will be in a position to push for its implementation. Although I avoid making predictions, I can say that mass production of microelectronic devices made of carbon nanotubes will not begin before 2015, said Avouris. This is because other things will have to shrink. For example, cables will have to become much thinner, something which entails greater electrical resistance and less speed. My colleagues are highly optimistic, but I’m not, he added. Another Greek scientist, Pavlos Alivizatos, professor of chemistry at the University of California, described Faidonas Avouris’s enterprise as progress of pioneering importance in the field of molecular electronics. Greek mentality Kathimerini asked Avouris if he agreed that the best and brightest of the country only did well abroad. For brilliant scientific ideas to get anywhere, they need solid foundations. Unfortunately, Greece is too small a country to support wide-ranging programs, especially in the technology sector. Of course, Holland is small as well, but it’s rich and has a background in technology. But it’s not just a question of money. If I can judge from what I read, especially Greek literature, what is chiefly lacking is the right mentality, and perhaps the spur provided by competition. But there are shining exceptions. Avouris reckoned that the universities of Crete and Patras were especially productive in the areas of information technology and positive sciences and have given birth to original ideas. I have learnt that there are young, educated people who do excellent work on Crete. These youngsters will get ahead because they do possess the spirit of competition. What he feels most disappointed in is the unreliability, ancestor worship and the nagging sense of being dissatisfied that possesses most Greeks. Greeks never feel happy. Something is always eating them. They are always finding fault with everything. When comparing life in Greece and America, he declares that here you’ll find better living standards, there better scientific standards. He places his hopes on education, which he described as the cornerstone of progress. The new computer’s core The core of future computer chips will be the carbon nanotube, which will replace the so-called silicon chip and hopefully bring faster, smarter and smaller computers by 2015. Faidonas Avouris Though born in Athens in 1945, his roots are in the islands, as his father was born and raised on Zakynthos and his mother on Amorgos. A chemistry graduate of the University of Thessaloniki, he worked for one and a half years at Dimokritos, the National Center for Scientific Research, before doing his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Michigan. Postdoctoral s tudies at the University of California at Los Angeles followed, and in 1978, he was hired by IBM. Today, he heads the Watson Research Center’s nanotechnology laboratory, and has some 250 scientific studies in laser technology, surface physics and chemistry and nanoelectronics to his credit. 7. There is a mistaken notion that parks are passive rather than active parts of the city, with educational, cultural and recreational potential.