Carbon nanotubes are a next-gen wonder material capable of creating everything from space elevators to better batteries. Now a team of scientists is working on creating high-performance computer chips using them. The team thinks that the carbon nanotubes’ could yield a better performance than current silicon-based devices and the potential for them is enormous.
“The problem is you have to put it in to production on a 10- or 15-year time scale, so the kinks have to be worked out in the next few years,” says IBM materials scientist James Hannon. “If you look at all the possibilities out there, there are very few that have actually produced an electronic device that would outperform silicon – there are exotic things out there but they’re all still at the ‘PowerPoint stage’.”
In their experiments, the team showed that single nanotubes demonstrated vastly superior speed and energy characteristics in the lab. The main challenges have been integration, which would involve placing billions of the tiny nanotubes on a chip with exact precision. There are a few solutions that the team came up with. One of them is a chemical that coats nanotubes and makes them soluble in water. Another is a solution that binds to the first chemical and to the element hafnium, but not to silicon.
Using this method, the team was able to create a series of neatly aligned nanotube devices at a density of a billion tubes per square centimeter. “That’s one nanotube every 150 or 200 (billionths of a metre) or so,” explained Dr Hannon. “That’s not good enough to make a microprocessor yet – it’s a factor of 10 away. But it’s a factor of 100 better than has been done previously.”