Nanowire Transistors For Smallest Computers

Nanowire transistors could form the basis for the tiniest computers possible, says a team led by Charles Lieber, a professor of chemistry at Harvard, and Shamik Das, lead engineer in MITRE's nanosystems group.

They built a reprogrammable circuit out of nanowire transistors; taken together, you wind up with the first scalable nanowire computer.

To make the new nanowire circuit, researchers deposited lines of nanowires, made of a germanium core and silicon shell, on a substrate and crossed them with lines of metal electrodes to create a grid. The points where the nanowires and electrodes intersect act as a transistor that can be turned on and off independently. The researchers made a single tile, with an area of 960 square microns containing 496 functional transistors. It is designed to wire to other tiles so that the transistors, in aggregate, could act as complex logic gates for processing or memory.

The nanowire transistors maintain their state-on or off—regardless of whether the power is on. This gives it an instant-on capability, important for low-power sensors that might need to collect data only sporadically and also need to conserve power.


(Smallest computers yet?)
Top: Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) image of a programmable
nanowire logic circuit tile assembled bottom-up for computational
functionalities such as full-adder. The tile can be scaled up into a
fully-functional integrated nanoprocessor
Bottom: This false-colored scanning electron microscope image
shows a nanowire processor tile superimposed on top of the
architecture used to design the circuit.

These circuits could be as much as ten times more power-efficient than circuits made of traditional materials. Nanowire doesn't allow electric current to leak, and the design uses capacitive connections instead of resistive ones.

This is the kind of computing size and power you'd need to implement the nanomachine swarm from Stanislaw Lem's amazing 1954 novel The Invincible:

"Two types of systems were successful in this evolutionary pattern: first, those that made the greatest progress in miniaturization and then those that became settled in a definite place. The first type were the beginning of these 'black clouds.' I believe them to be very tiny pseudo insects that, if necessary, and for their common good, can unite to form a superordinate system. This is the course taken by the evolution of the mobile mechanisms."
(Read more about Lem's nanomachine swarms)

Fans of Philip K. Dick are also anticipating the arrival of the autofac from his 1955 short story of the same name:

The pellet was a smashed container of machinery, tiny metallic elements too minute to be analyzed without a microscope...

The bits were in motion. Microscopic machinery, smaller than ants, smaller than pins, working energetically, purposefully - constructing something that looked like a tiny rectangle of steel.

From Lieber research group via Technology Review.

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