Future microchips may have only one type of component, capable of rewiring itself to do different jobs.
Researchers from Northwestern University in the US have developed a material that can radically change its electronic properties.
A resistor made from it could become a transistor or a diode, according to the report in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
The discovery could lead to cheaper, smaller and more powerful computers.
As electronics advance and demands for portability increase, one of the main challenges has been decreasing the size of elementary components.
Technology firms have attempted to address this with a number of innovations, including new ways of building circuit tracks so signals do not suffer damaging interference at ultra small sizes.
The Northwestern University team took a different approach.
“It’s becoming more and more challenging to make devices smaller and you need to think of new ways rather than just shrinking things down because you’re reaching a fundamental scientific limit here of how small you can make a device,” said David Walker, one of the researchers.
“Our solution to this is instead of making things smaller, why don’t we try to make them more versatile – by taking all these hardware components and building them into one.
“Think of this as a Swiss army knife of computer hardware, so to speak, where you package a lot of different things all into one device.”
To achieve this, the scientists have created a new material that consists of a “sea” of small negatively charged particles and larger, positively charged particles, which are “jammed” in place.
Because the negative particles form conductive regions, they act like conventional copper tracks in a circuit.
Once an electrical charge is applied to the material, those particles can be shifted around and reconfigured.
“Like redirecting a river, streams of electrons can be steered in multiple directions through a block of the material – even multiple streams flowing in opposing directions at the same time,” explained the lead researcher, Professor Bartosz Grzybowski, of Northwestern University.
This unusual property could allow a component made from this material to change its functions – allowing, in turn, a future computer to redirect and adapt its own circuitry as required.
“So the computer could send some set of electrical impulses or some type of electrical potential, and that would actually reconfigure the device to operate in a different way,” said Mr Walker.
He explained that there was not yet a name for the new material, but it was unlike any other material that exists today.
Smaller and more powerful
As computers would have fewer components, the scientists believe, it would inevitable be less costly to produce them – and for consumers to buy them.
If such a component were manufactured today, said Mr Walker, it would be four times larger than “IBM’s best sized technology out there”, but at the same time it would be able to simultaneously fulfil the functions of five different devices – so the overall efficiency would soar by 20%.
And eventually, these components would decrease in size, he added.
“The technology has got the propensity to be smaller, cheaper and more powerful.
“Eventually down the road it has the possibility to replace silicon-based devices that we use and to make electronics in a completely new way that may turn out to be much more promising than the current technology used in all of today’s devices.” (Katia Moskvitch/BBC News)