Silicon Valley may soon have to change its name, as the days of using silicon to create computer chips could be numbered thanks to the work of a Stanford University-led team of scientists. By using nanomaterials – meaning materials measuring less than 100 nanometers in at least one dimension – the researchers have managed to create a new type of chip that they say can operate up to 1,000 times more efficiently than silicon chips.
An upcoming paper in a special edition of the journal IEEE Computing entitled "Rebooting Computing" will provide details of the new Nano-Engineered Computing Systems Technology, or N3XT. The project, which involves the collaboration of three other universities, was born out of a need to overcome the current shortcomings of silicon computer chips.
Due to the fact that these can only be manufactured at temperatures of around 982°C (1,800°F), it is not possible to stack new chips on top of existing ones without damaging the lower layers. Consequently, silicon chips are always designed on single layers, connected by wires.
However, this means that information must often travel over longer distances than necessary, thereby wasting energy. For this reason, the team sought to create a new type of multi-story chip, which would allow the transfer of data across much shorter distances.
An illustration of the chip. Subhasish Mitra and H.-S. Philip Wong
Using materials more advanced than silicon, they were able to create circuit boards at temperatures low enough for multiple layers to be manufactured on top of one another. This means that rather than traveling across multiple chips in order to get from point A to point B, data can now simply jump between chips via tiny electronic "elevators" called vias.
These are also significantly more advanced than the current mechanisms used to regulate the flow of information in silicon chips. Traditionally, this is achieved using transistors, which are like switches that either allow signals to flow or block them, thereby transmitting information in the form of ones and zeros.
Yet N3XT chips use carbon nanotube transistors (CNTs), which are faster and more energy-efficient than silicon transistors. The end product is a significantly more powerful type of computer chip, as explained by study co-author H.-S. Philip Wong, who said in a statement that “when you combine higher speed with lower energy use, N3XT systems outperform conventional approaches by a factor of a thousand.”