Carbon Nanotubes Look to Sideline Silicon

By: | October 11th, 2013

For decades, the transistors in computer chips have been based on silicon. These transistors control the electricity flow in computer microchips and have been getting smaller and smaller over time.

But engineers are quickly approaching the limits of silicon’s ability to take the heat. Silicon has a significant drawback, the tinier the silicon transistors get, the more heat they leak and a lot of power is wasted. They become less efficient with their shrinking sizes.

Looking at the limitations of silicon, engineers have long recognized the need to find its replacement. They have been working and experimenting with different ideas to find silicon’s replacement. Now, the researchers at Stanford University have come up with an idea of using carbon nanotubes in place of silicon … a big step in the quest for faster and ever-smaller electronic devices.

They’ve developed a 178-transistor computer using carbon nanotubes instead of silicon. The computer operates on one bit of information, which is significantly less than today’s 32- or 64-bit processors, but this carbon nanotube breakthrough could be the first step toward making devices run faster on less energy.

Carbon offers a way forward, carbon nanotube transistors are more energy efficient and even smaller than their silicon ancestors. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are rolled up sheets of carbon atoms. They have a lot of other fascinating properties, which makes them potentially useful to build transistors and improve silicon’s performance by an order of magnitude.

These tubes are extremely thin. In fact, tens of thousands of carbon nanotubes can fit into the width of a single human hair. They have the highest ‘strength to weight’ ratio of any known material.

But swapping carbon for silicon is still a long way off. By the time carbon transistor technology becomes commercially viable, conventional silicon will remain mainstay and may go through many more revolutions. Processor makers will keep squeezing as much life out of silicon as possible.

Nidhi Goyal

Nidhi is a gold medalist Post Graduate in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

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