Tiny computers!

Don’t be surprised if a few years from now tiny electronic devices start being a norm rather than an experiment. A major breakthrough has just occurred in the realm of nano-scale processors and circuitry, perhaps even the critical finding needed to develop working nano-scale circuits.

“This work represents a quantum jump forward in the complexity and function of circuits built from the bottom up, and thus demonstrates that this bottom-up paradigm, which is distinct from the way commercial circuits are built today, can yield nanoprocessors and other integrated systems of the future,” said Charles Lieber, who holds a joint appointment at Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology and school of engineering and applied sciences, in an article for ScienceDaily.com.

Before this breakthrough, researchers working with nano-scale components often had trouble producing consistent results, owing in part to the unpredictable behavior of such tiny components. The most commonly used components are called “nanowires,” and they are “structures that have a lateral size constrained to tens of nanometres or less and an unconstrained longitudinal size” so small that classical physics no longer apply to their operations, and they are sometimes called “quantum wires.” The size and methods for creating the wires usually led to great variation in individual components, which is a serious setback when creating circuits.

The key to creating a working nanoprocessor was overcoming this individual variability, and the new nano parts “now demonstrate the reproducibility needed to build functional electronic circuits, and also do so at a size and material complexity difficult to achieve by traditional top-down approaches.”

The projects results get even more impressive, however. The nanoprocessor is fully programmable and scaleable, meaning that it can be used to construct larger digital systems. Earlier designs were akin to early computer circuits — usually single function and non-programmable. This nanoprocessor is a processor in all senses of the word; the “ultra-tiny nanocircuits can be programmed electronically to perform a number of basic arithmetic and logical functions.”

If that weren’t enough, as a side-effect of the materials and size, the new components use very little power and are able to store information indefinitely. Memory in most computers and microprocessors is considered “volatile.” That is, when the power is turned off all the information stored in memory is lost. “This means that unlike transistors in conventional microcomputer circuits, once the nanowire transistors are programmed, they do not require any additional expenditure of electrical power for maintaining memory,” writes physorg.com.

Integrated systems may become a lot smaller, opening up new possibilities for electronic devices. The possibilities are endless — medical technology come to mind immediately — and it seems the consumer applications are almost limitless. If you think digital systems are ubiquitous now, just wait till you can fit a processor farm onto the space the size of a napkin.