For decades, the computer chip industry has gradually improved the performance of chips by inserting increasingly fewer silicon transistors — the components that make up circuits — on each chip. But silicon transistor smaller than about 10 nanometers are unreliable, and that will soon slow the pace of progress in silicon-based computing.
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The consequences of the slowing down might be drastic, says Subhasish Mitra, circuit programmer at Stanford University. Picture, he said, an alternative reality where, in 2001, technology reached its limits: that means there are no smartphones, as they were invented after 2001. If we can engineer around this transistor blockade, our technology could continue to increase.
In September, physicist Philip Wong, along with Mitra , unveiled a long-awaited alternative: the first carbon nanotube (CNT) device, constructed from transistors not made from silicon, but from single-atom-thick carbon straws called carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are only about 1 or 2 nanometers in diameter, but their basic electronic properties allow strong signals to be sent using much smaller transistors than with silicon.
Since CNT machines use about a tenth of the same power as equivalent silicon systems, they could also offer significant energy savings one day. But don’t expect to spend weeks without charging your smartphone anytime in the near future. The CNT computer built by Mitra and Wong has only 178 transistors compared to the billions of transistors that make up the intricate silicon circuits of today. And that means it can only do simple tasks, such as adding numbers. The scientists from Stanford equate their accomplishment with the first silicon computers built in the early 1970s.
“This is just the beginning,” Mitra says.
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