Breakthroughs bring the next two major leaps in computing power into sight

Breakthroughs might make quantum computing, replacement for silicon practical within a decade

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Far sooner than quantum computers will blow our digitized minds, transistors made from grapheme rather than chunkier materials will allow designers to create processors far more dense – and therefore more potentially powerful – than anything theoretically possible using silicon and metallic alloys we rely on now.

Graphene is a one-atom-thick layer of carbon that offers almost no resistance to electricity flowing through it, but doesn't naturally contain electrons at two energy levels, as silicon does. Silicon transistors flip on or off by shifting electrons from one energy level to another.

Even silicon doesn't work that way naturally. It has to be "doped" with impurities to change its properties as a semiconductor.

For graphene to work the same way, researchers have to add inverters that that mimic the dual energy levels of silicon. So far they only work at 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (77 degrees Kelvin).

Researchers at Purdue's Birck Nanotechnology Center built a version that operates at room temperature, removing the main barrier to graphene as a practical option for computer systems design

The researchers, led by doctoral candidate Hong-Yan Chen presented their paper at the Device Research Conference in Santa Barbara. Calif. in June to publicize their results with the inverter.

Real application will have to wait for Chen or others to integrate the design into a working circuit based on graphene rather than silicon.

Systems built on graphene have the potential to boost the computing power of current processors by orders of magnitude while reducing their size and energy use, but only if they operate in offices not cooled to 77 degrees Kelvin.

It will still be a few years before graphene starts showing up in airline magazines, let alone in IT budgets. We'll probably be tired of them, too, by the time quantum computers show up, but there's just no satisfying some people.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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