Technology 3 min read

Computer Chip: Carbon Nanotubes Pick up the Slack

MIT engineers designed a working computer chip out of carbon nanotubes in a major step toward replacing traditional silicon chips.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Second only to oxygen, silicon (Si) is the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Because of its cost-effectiveness and nearly perfect crystal structure, silicon has dominated the electronics industry as the semiconductor material of choice for decades.

The Silicon Valley is here to attest to this element’s contribution to the digital revolution that has changed just about everything we do.

But silicon’s golden age seems to be coming to an end.

Silicon-based computer chips can’t meet the growing industrial needs as the material, according to Moore’s Law, is reaching its physical limit.

Because they can’t keep cramming more transistors in computer chips forever, scientists are exploring novel materials that could provide a better replacement of silicon.

Move Over Silicon, CNT Computer Chip is Coming!

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) can help keep up with the increasing computing power demands and kick off a new electronic revolution. Where silicon fails, in terms of transistor size and density, carbon nanotubes can pick up the slack.

Carbon nanotube-based computer chips aren’t only faster, but also more energy-efficient, thus greener than their silicon counterparts.

In a new study, MIT scientists report they have rolled up one-atom-thick sheets of carbon to make 14,000 CNFETs, or carbon nanotubes field-effect transistors and build a modern working microprocessor.

“This is by far the most advanced chip made from any emerging nanotechnology that is promising for high-performance and energy-efficient computing,” says co-author Max Shulaker.

“There are limits to silicon. If we want to continue to have gains in computing, carbon nanotubes represent one of the most promising ways to overcome those limits. [The paper] completely reinvents how we build chips with carbon nanotubes.”

This new research builds on previous work by the same MIT team. Back in 2013, Shulaker and his colleagues designed a computer chip running on only 178 CNFETs and a single bit of data.

The team spent the last six years solving three challenges they faced: material defects, manufacturing defects, and functional issues. And they came up with this new iteration.

A more complex architecture of a 16-bit microprocessor functional enough to accurately execute the basic instructions of the classic C++ program “Hello, World!”, displaying “Hello, World! I am RV16XNano, made from CNTs.”

This carbon nanotube transistors, CNFETs, can be fabricated using traditional silicon computer chip foundries. This makes carbon nanotube computer chips more practical alternative to silicon ones and easier to adopt for large-scale requirements.

The MIT researchers call the novel technique they developed to make CNT-based computer chips DREAM, an acronym for Designing Resiliency Against Metallic CNTs.

“The ‘DREAM’ pun is very much intended because it’s the dream solution,” Shulaker says. “This allows us to buy carbon nanotubes off the shelf, drop them onto a wafer, and just build our circuit like normal, without doing anything else special.”

Read More: Gallium Oxide “Fins:” More Powerful Chips With Less Footprint

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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