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Carbon nanotubes in a race against time to replace silicon

Lamont Wood | Nov. 11, 2015
Nascent carbon nanotube chip technology may save the computer industry from silicon’s presumed looming demise. Or it may not.

Shulaker adds that CNTs can actually be superior to silicon in that a layer of CNT circuitry can be added to an existing silicon device, since the process requires applying heat at 120 degrees centigrade. Adding a layer of silicon would require 900 degrees centigrade, which would destroy the original layer.

"Huge amounts of energy are wasted in computers moving data from memory to the processor, but monolithic integrated 3D [chips], with transistors and memory stacked directly on top of each other, would give huge performance benefits," he says.

"You could build a whole computer on a dime. Beyond better transistors you would get brand-new types of systems; it could lead to a whole new world," Shulaker says.

"I am hopeful that CNTs will be used someday," he adds. "It does not need to replace silicon, it can be built atop silicon, and therefore it doesn't need to do everything at once."

Gwennap likens the generation-by-generation development of chip technology to driving down a dark road at night, where only what is in the range of the car's headlights can be seen.

"I can see 10nm, I can see 7 pretty well, and I hear 5nm is pretty solid, but nobody knows what happens after that," Gwennap notes. "Below 5nm it seems like it has to stop somewhere, but I am skeptical of saying that since I have heard others say it, and I have said it myself over the past 20 years, that we can't get below a certain size. But CNTs can only be 1nm, and if silicon gets below that it obviates the need for CNTs," says Gwennap.

"But we have been in this situation for decades, where we can't see more than five years out," he adds. "Somehow, here we are."

 

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