Jul
27
2007

Nano chips: Back to the future

in


Thinking small with nanotechnology: Photo by watdoenwijmetnl courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.
Mechanical computers designed nearly 200 years ago by British computer pioneer Charles Babbage are the inspiration for a new nano chip being developed by US scientists.

"What we are proposing is a new type of computing architecture that is only based on nano-mechanical elements," said Professor Robert Blick of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s one of the authors of the paper that appeared in the New Journal of Physics.

While traditional silicon chips are based on the movements of electrons around circuits, the mechanical nano chip would rely on the movements of its tiny parts to perform calculations. And excessive heat build-up wouldn’t be a concern with nano chips as it is with silicon ones.

Blick said his design wouldn’t compete with the high-speed silicon-based chips that are prevalent in today’s computers, but could take over some of the mundane jobs where energy and cost efficiency is crucial, such as inside car engines or household appliances.

However, the US military has expressed interest in seeing a working model since nano-mechanical devices wouldn’t be susceptible to electromagnetic pulses, which could be used by enemy forces to disable traditional computer chips.

The researchers’ nano chip idea harkens back to designs first brought forth in the early 19th century by engineer and mathematician Charles Babbage.

"It's inspired by Babbage's ideas but these days we can scale it down," Professor Blick said.

Well, let’s hope so. One of Babbage’s computers would have required steam power and tens of thousands of levers and gears to operate. And would have weighed more than 12 tons.

Babbage never completed any of his designs but recently London's Science Museum built one of his computers that proved capable of performing complicated calculations.

But even Babbage's ideas had predecessors. In 1900, the remains of a 2000 year-old mechanical device called the Antikythera mechanism was found on the sea bottom near the Greek island of Antikythera. It was determined recently that the ancient device had been used for temporal and astronomical calculations. See my previous post to learn more about that.

MORE INFO

BBC story
More on Babbage
More on the Antikythera mechanism

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