Carbon Nanotubes and the Future of Computing

17 | By Michael A. Robinson

We have to come up with a new name for Silicon Valley.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not going away. The famous region at the southern end of San Francisco Bay will continue being home to the world’s top high-tech companies. It’s just that we won’t be able to call it “Silicon Valley” much longer.

After all, the region earned its nickname based on the type of material we use to make semiconductors for a wide range of computers.

And that material is going to have to change.

Of course, silicon still holds a huge lead over other substances in computer chip design. But there’s a fundamental problem with silicon chips.

Engineers are running out of room on them.

You see, the Valley runs on a basic rule that has remained unchanged for many decades. It’s called Moore’s Law, and it states that computing power roughly doubles every two years. This explains why your smart phone is a better, faster computer than the mainframes NASA had when it made its moon shots in the ’60s.

To keep up with Moore’s Law, we need to pack ever more transistors – the tiny switches used to control computers – on semiconductors. The current number stands at more than a billion (on an area smaller than a postage stamp). That’s impressive. But at some point, the law of physics will limit how many transistors we can place on a piece of silicon.

It’s fast getting to the point where we can’t physically make transistors any smaller. And once we run out of real estate, the growth in processing power will hit a brick wall, in turn, slowing the entire pace of innovation around the globe.

That’s why I’m glad to tell you today about a new computing breakthrough from International Business Machines Inc. (NYSE:IBM). They scored a huge advance that could soon put the tech world light years ahead of where we are today.

This novel new material is made of a very familiar substance…

Discovered in 1991, a carbon nanotube is just a single sheet of carbon atoms rolled up into a tube. It’s hard to think of any computing substance smaller than these tubes – they’re 100,000 times less wide than a human hair.

Big Blue’s team placed an array of carbon nanotubes on top of a silicon wafer. Team members then used the tiny tubes to build hybrid chips that had more than 10,000 working transistors.

As you can imagine, it wouldn’t take that many carbon nanotubes to equal in impact what we get out of standard transistors. And that’s just what the IBM found.

To put this in practical terms, IBM showed that these new carbon-nanotube transistors can work as computer switches less than one-half the size of the best silicon tech we have right now. To get more details on what it all means, team members then ran computer simulations of how these kinds of circuits would work in the real world.

Fasten your seat belts, folks…

Based on those models, the team now predicts its carbon-tube system would run five to 10 times faster than what silicon can yield. That’s just a staggering increase in performance. It’s like taking your Toyota Prius out to the desert and running it at more than 500 miles an hour.

So, in the near future, your PC, your tablet computer, and smart phone could all run much – I mean much – faster. That’s just what we need, at a time when advanced software and things like high-def video are chewing up bandwidth.

It all cuts to the core of the Era of Radical Change. Once again, we find the U.S. at the forefront of cutting-edge high tech that could have a huge impact on the whole world. High tech is moving at warp speed. What used to be science fiction is becoming science fact – and all because of faster and more robust computers.

In fact, I believe any system that allows our computers to process 500% to 1000% faster will have a huge impact on everything from cancer research to the coming age of space tourism.

Of course, IBM faces many hurdles before it can perfect the new process and get it to market. Team members believe it may take a decade to pull that off – in no small part because the tubes themselves must be highly pure.

In their native state, these tubes come as a mix of metallic and semiconducting matter. But to make electronic circuits work without going haywire, engineers must use a precise mix of semiconductors; no impurities allowed, not even a speck of dust.

To get around this hurdle, the IBM team got creative. They used a process called ion-exchange chemistry. Don’t worry about the details of this approach. It’s very complex. At the heart, it means they found a way to make the carbon pure enough to pack a lot of nanotubes into a very small space.

And this is vital for a simple reason.

Even though the industry in the near future may change to carbon switches, chip makers likely won’t have to retool to make these new high-speed circuits.

Don’t gloss over this fact. It’s key.

It means the industry can use the same factories that cost them billions of dollars to build over the last couple of decades. So, the sector has every technical and financial reason to embrace carbon now.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can say I live just 40 minutes from “Carbon Valley.”

17 Responses to Carbon Nanotubes and the Future of Computing

  1. Richard says:

    What’s the diffference between Carbon nodules and graphene usage for computing? Both are
    one layer atom thin.

    • John R. Stedman says:

      An amazing concept. But a way must be found to make the use of this into an operatimg system that the average user will be able to understand and use in a practical uncluttered , more straightforward manner. Unlike the present mish mash of current systems.

      • .SQLGeek says:

        I don’tmean to be insulting, but your comment shows a complete lack of understanding of computing architecture. The “operating system” is at least two levels abstracted from the chip architecture Michael is describing here. First, the team at IBM needs to define a hardware architecture, and a way to instruct the nanotube “transistors” to change state betwen off and on (1 or 0) Then they need to codify that into a machine (assembly) language. Once that’s done, an operating system kernel can be developed, which provides interfaces for all the higher level functions to control the chips. Finally, the O/S user interface (the part which the “average user” sees) can be plugged in to manage the real operating system. Fortunately. operating system development is pretty well understood…it’s been going on since the 50s. But there’s a TON of hardware engineering and VERY low-level software development that needs to take place before any “average users” can expect to see anything useful from this technology.

    • Enrique Aguayo says:

      We fail to see China as what it really is. China’s goal in the long run is to enslave the Western world.

      American as well as people from different countries of the Western hemisphere are engaged in a Russian Roulette type of game involving China’s trade, we underestimate the Chinese,they are our long time enemies, and the US is playing along their terms, we must all in the Western world engaged in a campaign : Say NO to Chinese imports of any kind.

  2. Mike Sullivan says:

    Big Blue is NOT stupid! I’ll bet IBM has already applied for patents in every country in the world.So much for China “stealing” the technology.

    • Dwight says:

      Patents mean nothing in China. Entire divisions of their military do nothing all day but sit at computers hacking into US companies IT systems to steal intellectual property. Until they reach the level where they are creating more new Intellectual property than they can steal, they will continue to refuse to enforce any foreign patent. We are so addicted to their cheap labor there is nothing we can do about it either.

  3. paul sykes says:

    It is not very difficult to see where more’s law and silicon valley has almost stopped functioning,as in the case of…. Apple.. New and greater paradigm shifts technologies now are beginning to emerge,such as the DNA of Sound which will make people no longer wow about how small their entertainment device is ,now can literally and magically bring totally amazingly live best concert halls and past present and future entertainers in voice and music stunningly better than or with the best HD video technologies today…This from what i have heard would coin the word UFO valley !paul m sykes

  4. Laurie says:

    A explanation of graphene unsuitability I have been involved in the silicon field for a long time
    Nano have been involved in this field for a long time but if the insight,energy and direction can
    be found in todays scientist,the impossible is possible,of course china will be involved join them
    we cannot fight them any more.
    Find a new crazy man (steve jobs) he would succeed (everything is possible) DO.

  5. Steve says:

    No one explained the difference between graphene and carbon nanotubes. Isn’t Graphene also carbon?
    Someone please explain?

  6. gazza1945 says:

    If China or for that matter any other country wants the technology than patents will be totally disregarded. If this technology has military implications then it will be used and China has proven in the past to hold “progress” before law.

  7. Robert Roger Pelletier says:

    The evolution velocity from the minds tool box is today noticeably apparent and is directly related to an absolute value for the velocity of light- being finally replaced by a Heisenberg Parametric wave front through time. Tachyon stimulation is consciously now upon us making what would happen during 100 years now occurring in in a generation.

  8. Michael arnold says:

    I can only kick myself in the Ass fir not getting my head out of my Ass,as my I.B.M. Brother of mine called me shit for brains!!!! He dedicated his life to slide rules,numbers an electronics,im sure the heads of I.B.M. Will rememer his name now that he’s gone,(Richard M. Arnold ) I truely miss him !!!! An wished I could follow in his foot steps,if I had only listened!!! God Bless them all at I.B.M.

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