Magnetic Microchips Provide New Spin on Processors
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Computer chips that are smaller and more powerful than today's models are not science fiction -- at least, not if some scientists in the UK have their way. These chips, which use the spin of electrons rather than their charge for delivering those ones and zeroes, may pave the way to much faster, lighter, less expensive systems that consume far less energy. But some hurdles still need to be overcome.
We all know how modern microprocessors work. They contain millions of transistors (233 million in a dual-core Opteron) that handle various “heavy lifting” for computing tasks. These transistors use electrical energy for the ones and zeroes that form machine language and help the computer carry out its functions. Needless to say, computers consume electricity – and create a lot of heat, which causes all sorts of problems.
But what if it were possible to create a computer that didn’t need electricity? What if there were some way for transistors to represent those ones and zeroes without resorting to an electrical charge? Furthermore, what if this new way to handle computer processing functioned on a much smaller scale than the current method, allowing manufacturers to pack literally billions of transistors into an area less than a half inch square?
Is this science fiction? It might have been more than a decade ago, but recent advances and research into nanotechnology and magnetism are bringing such a chip closer to reality – and commercialization. One of the most exciting developments happened in late September of this year. Researchers from Durham University, Imperial College, and the University of Sheffield have created a computer that uses magnetic microchips. The device itself is relatively modest, but it paves the way for a major shift, not only in what is possible with computers, but perhaps even in what we think of as possible.
Fans of Moore’s Law will be delighted to hear about this. As you probably recall, the “law” roughly states that at our current rate of development, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double every 18 to 24 months. But there are limits to the number of transistors that can be etched on silicon. Indeed, some commentators have observed that manufacturers are quickly approaching these limits, and we need to find new substrates (such as manmade diamonds) to continue the progression predicted by Moore’s Law. This breakthrough could change all that.
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