Thursday, May 7, 2009

Move Over, Silicon

I just read something really cool, with huge implications for computing and electronics in general. Currently all computer chips and solid-state electronics are made from silicon. But silicon has limitations. At high operating frequencies, in the gigahertz range, silicon's natural electrical resistance generates a lot of heat. The faster chips become, the more heat has to be siphoned away from the components or you risk frying the chip. This tops silicon-based electronics out right where they are, in the gigahertz range, or billions of calculations per second.

But scientists are making impressive gains creating chips using another element, one much nearer and dearer (and the constituent element of) our hearts. Carbon. Carbon is 100 times less resistive to electricity, which means far less operating heat and the possibility of chips that can operate at terahertz frequencies, or trillions of operations per second. Chips that are a thousand times more powerful than the current state-of-the-art.

Here's the wild part. Carbon chips would be made from graphite, a form of carbon. More specifically, they're built from graphene, or a super-thin sheet of graphite only one atom thick. At one atom thick, graphene is essentially two-dimensional. Silicon's three-dimensional structure is monstrous by comparison. Graphene's nearly non-existent footprint will allow transistors only a few atoms wide, and chips infinitesimally smaller than today's lumbering silicon-based chips.

Imagine the computing power resident in today's super-computers, condensed into your cell phone. Or super-computers a thousand times more powerful than today's standard. With that much processing power, artificial intelligence would be right around the corner. Which is fitting and poetic I think. Our brains are carbon-based. How beautiful that the same element would make our digital progeny possible.

There are still some major hurdles to work through, but I'm optimistic.

Though "Carbon Valley" doesn't have quite the same ring.

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