In less than 20 years, experts predict, we will reach the physical limit of how much processing capability can be squeezed out of silicon-based processors in the heart of our computing devices. But a recent scientific finding that could completely change the way we build computing devices may simply allow engineers to sidestep any obstacles.
The breakthrough from materials scientists at IBM Research doesn't sound like a big deal. In a nutshell, they claim to have figured out how to convert metal oxide materials, which act as natural insulators, to a conductive metallic state. Even better, the process is reversible.
Shifting materials from insulator to conductor and back is not exactly new, according to Stuart Parkin, IBM Fellow at IBM Research. What is new is that these changes in state are stable even after you shut off the power flowing through the materials.
And that's huge.
Power On… And On And On And On…
When it comes to computing — mobile, desktop or server — all devices have one key problem: they're inefficient as hell with power.
As users, we experience this every day with phone batteries dipping into the red, hot notebook computers burning our laps or noisily whirring PC fans grating our ears. System administrators and hardware architects in data centers are even more acutely aware of power inefficiency, since they run huge collections of machines that mainline electricity while generating tremendous amounts of heat (which in turn eats more power for the requisite cooling systems).
Here's one basic reason for all the inefficiency: Silicon-based transistors must be powered all the time, and as current runs through these very tiny transistors inside a computer processor, some of it leaks. Both the active transistors and the leaking current generate heat — so much that without heat sinks, water lines or fans to cool them, processors would probably just melt.
Enter the IBM researchers. Computers process information by switching transistors on or off, generating binary 1s and 0s. processing depends on manipulating two states of a transistor: off or on, 1s or 0s — all while the power is flowing. But suppose you could switch a transistor with just a microburst of electricity instead of supplying it constantly with current. The power savings would be enormous, and the heat generated, far, far lower.
That's exactly what the IBM team says it can now accomplish with its state-changing metal oxides. This kind of ultra-low power use is similar to the way neurons in our own brains fire to make connections across synapses, Parkin explained. The human brain is more powerful than the processors we use today, he added, but "it uses a millionth of the power."
The implications are clear. Assuming this technology can be refined and actually manufactured for use in processors and memory, it could form the basis of an entirely whole new class of electronic devices that would barely sip at power. Imagine a smartphone with that kind of technology. The screen, speakers and radios would still need power, but the processor and memory hardware would barely touch the battery.
Moore's Law? What Moore's Law?
There's a lot more research ahead before this technology sees practical applications. Parkin explained that the fluid used to help achieve the steady state changes in these materials needs to be more efficiently delivered using nano-channels, which is what he and his fellow researchers will be focusing on next.
Ultimately, this breakthrough is one among many that we have seen and will see in computing technology. Put in that perspective, it's hard to get that impressed. But stepping back a bit, it's clear that the so-called end of the road for processors due to physical limits is probably not as big a deal as one would think. True, silicon-based processing may see its time pass, but there are other technologies on the horizon that should take its place.
Now all we have to do is think of a new name for Silicon Valley.
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