Scientists have designed a nanoscale computer that’s smaller than a virus

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

  • Nanoscale computers could work inside, or outside the body to help control, direct and interact with other atomic, molecular or nanoscale devices and systems


 

While the trend for miniaturisation in consumer technology has been halted in recent years with the rise of the ‘phablet’, the internal components of most of your gadgets are continuing to get smaller.

In 1959 renowned physicist Richard Feynman, in his talk “Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” spoke of a future in which tiny machines could perform huge feats. Like many forward-looking concepts, his molecule and atom-sized world remained for years in the realm of science fiction but now, engineers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have designed the world’s smallest nanoscale computing device. It uses an unconventional form of logic and measures less than 50 nanometres on each side – that’s the same size as a biological virus.

 

nanocomputer

The stacked memresistor design

 

“Novel computing paradigms are needed to keep up with the demand for faster, smaller and more energy-efficient devices,” said Gina Adam, who worked on the project, “in a regular computer, data processing and memory storage are separated, which slows down computation. Processing data directly inside a 3D memory structure would allow more data to be stored and processed much faster.”

And that’s exactly what the team did. They used an unusual logic system called “Material Implication Logic”, where the computers logic operations and information storage happen simultaneously in the same place, not separated as in most computers. As a result, no space is needed to move data back and forth to the memory.

 

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While the technology to fabricate computers this small are still lagging the teams new design is the first step towards creating computing systems that can operate, for example, inside the body, where it could control, direct and interface with nanobots, or outside of the body where they could compliment next generation molecular computers, and smartdust – small millimetre scale electromechanical (MEMs) devices that can come together to carry out certain tasks.

“Since this technology is still new, more research is needed to increase its reliability and lifetime and to demonstrate large scale 3D circuits tightly packed in tens or hundreds of layers,” Adam said.

The full details of the computing device were published in the journal Nano Research.

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