October 1, 2013
A team of engineers at Stanford University has built the first functioning computer that uses carbon nanotubes rather than the standard silicon. The new material for building transistors could dramatically impact the way computers work in the future. While others have discussed the possibility of carbon nanotubes for years, Stanford’s team is the first to put them to practical use. The material could launch a new generation of devices that run faster and use less energy.
“Though engineers have been able to roughly double the number of transistors they can fit on a silicon chip every two years for decades, a phenomenon known as Moore’s Law, the party seems to be coming to an end,” reports Digital Trends. “As transistors get smaller and smaller, engineers are butting up against the laws of physics, meaning silicon’s days are numbered if we want computers to keep getting smaller and faster.”
While carbon nanotubes offer a solution to the silicon problem, they also come with their own limitations that make chip design challenging. For example, growing carbon nanotubes in a straight line is often problematic. Additionally, some tubes will occasionally perform as conductive wires instead of semiconductors.
“But Stanford’s team found a way to conquer both limitations by literally vaporizing the faulty ‘wire’ nanotubes and building a chip design that was tolerant of the imperfections in the rest,” notes the post.
For now, Stanford’s computer is rather primitive, executing basic tasks such as counting and number sorting. But if Stanford scientists are successful moving forward, silicon could eventually go the way of the vacuum tubes that came before it.
“Though it could take years to mature, the Stanford approach points toward the possibility of industrial-scale production of carbon nanotube semiconductors, according to Naresh Shanbhag, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and director of SONIC, a consortium of next-generation chip design research,” reports the Stanford News Service.
“People have been talking about a new era of carbon nanotube electronics moving beyond silicon,” explains Stanford professor Subhasish Mitra, an electrical engineer and computer scientist. “But there have been few demonstrations of complete digital systems using this exciting technology. Here is the proof.”