IBM researchers have finally unlocked the secret to creating microchips using carbon nanotubes.
Article by Harry Petit
The innovation could lead us to some of the most powerful microchips ever created paving the way for injectable microchips and bendy computers.
The team, based at IBM’s laboratories in New York, suggest that their microscopic, molecular-level tubes could, in theory, be six to ten times faster than the modern-day, silicon variety with a decade.
But one day nanotube microchip technology could reach processing speeds 1,000 than silicon chips.
The chips, which could be used to dramatically improve phone and laptop performance, would be the most powerful we’ve ever seen, and use substantially less electricity than current technology allows.
Scientists have previously speculated that nanotube chips have the potential to make computers 1,000 times fast than modern day version in a letter to Nature.
But the chips would not only revolutionise the development of new tablets and phones.
They could also be used to develop futuristic nano-machines that can target cancer cells in the body with unprecedented accuracy.
The problem with nanotubes has always been their size, but the researchers at IBM have found a clever way around this headache.
Nanomaterials are imperceptibly small, making them notoriously difficult to work with.
Traditionally, microchip makers have taken a minuscule piece of silicon and carved what they need into it, like chiseling instructions onto an ancient stone tablet.
Chiseling the maze-like technical tapestry needed for a working chip into tiny carbon nanotubes has, understandably, proven challenging in the past.
‘The analogy I use is that it’s like building a statue out of a pile of blocks,’ IBM Research materials scientist George Tulevski, who will explain the new process tomorrow at TED@IBM, told Wired.
‘You can’t place these nanotubes one by one into the pattern you want.’
Tulevski and his team found an ingenious way around this barrier by developing a way to chemically ‘coax’ each nanotube into the shape and structure they need.
The chemicals trigger the nanotubes to assemble themselves, meaning the difficulties with the brick-by-brick ‘top-down’ approach are averted.
The process is now less like carving into a tablet, and more like the organic process of growing a crystal.
‘We’re trying to tackle that problem by borrowing from nature, because nature builds everything that way,’ Tulevski says.
‘We think that’s one of the key missing pieces.’
Nanotechnology was the exclusive preserve of science fiction for many years, but as research methods and tools have developed since the 1990s it has re-surged as a legitimate answer to many of science’s most pressing technological questions.
Last year, an IBM team developed a new method to squeeze a record number of carbon nanotube transistors into a smaller space, boosting the amount of power we can generate from small microchips.
As well as this, companies like Nanotronics Imaging have created a new form of microscope that makes the process of making nanotechnologies far simpler than ever before.
However, the IBM research team are still years away from manufacturing nano-based chips on a commercial scale.
It may be another decade before we see the hyper-speed processors hit the smartphone market.
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