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Stanford's nanotube computer: 4 reasons for non-geeks to care

This wafer contains tiny computers using carbon nanotubes, a material that could lead to smaller, more energy-efficient processors.

Unhappy with the battery life and speed of your new smartphone? Fear not: There's news today of a computing breakthrough that promises to make computer chips faster, cheaper and more energy efficient.

Silicon has been the basic material of computer electronics for decades. But Stanford University researchers say they've developed a computer based on a technology called carbon nanotubes. These are little carbon wires so small that up to 150,000 could fit in the width of a human hair.

But should you really care? Yes:

  1. Because the speed of silicon chips are about to hit a wall.

    A laptop today would've been considered a supercomputer 20 years ago. Every couple years, processors have gotten smaller and faster, relentlessly. But that progress is going to slow down soon.

    "People are very worried that ten years from now we will completely run out of steam," says Kevin Skadron who heads the computer science department at the University of Virginia.

    Silicon chips are made more powerful as we pack more transistors into them. But that sucks up more and more power, and they get too hot.

    "The total power of the chip keeps going up and we can’t cost effectively cool that," Skadron says.

    On top of that, we can only get silicon circuits so small before they stop working well. Enter the carbon nanotube.

    "Carbon nanotubes just make that problem go away,” says Skadron.

    Carbon nanotubes are tiny (up to 150,000 could fit in the width of the thickest human hair) rolled up tubes of carbon. They have low electrical resistance, and can be scaled down far beyond what Silicon can do. The computer that researchers at Stanford created using carbon nanotube transistors is very basic -- it has 178 transistors, while a Microsoft Xbox One gaming system has 5 billion -- but it works.

    Stanford's Subhasish Mitra, who led the research says, "this is the first demonstration that you can build something real beyond silicon transistors."

  2. Your cellphone will thank you. (In the future, when it’s a sentient being.)

    Carbon nanotubes may not create full-blown artificial intelligence, at least not any time soon, but the circuitry could do wonders for your smart phone.

    "You care about two things when it comes to your cellphone or computer – you care about how fast it is and how long its battery is," says Max Shulaker, a grad student who was the lead author on the nanotube computing paper that announced the work in the journal Nature. "Those are the two things which carbon nanotubes improve by an order of magnitude."

  3. Think beyond your cell phone

    Longer lasting phone batteries (which would be a small miracle) is thinking small, says Sharad Malik who teaches electrical engineering at Princeton.

    "If we do this right, we should see not just future smartphones but something which we can’t even imagine today," he says. "That’s the real promise here."

  4. But don’t get crazy.

    Siri isn’t going to turn into Hal anytime soon. There are a lot of issues that need resolving before carbon nanotubes are going to appear in your microwave or desktop. The Stanford computer is just an example that it’s possible, sort of like the Wright Brothers’ plane demonstrated human flight was possible. It’ll take a decade at least for this technology to reach consumers.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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