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Carbon nanotube breakthrough promises faster, lower power processors


Carbon nanotube transistors finally out perform their traditional silicon counterparts.


The computing industry has long seen carbon nanotube transistors as something of a Holy Grail – promising not just faster performance but also lower power consumption than their silicon based equivalents. And it has long been thought that if researchers could harness carbon nanotube technology then they could slow, or even reverse the demise of  Moore’s Law and overcome some of the performance per watt problems highlighted by Dennard’s Scaling Law.


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However, up until recently their real-world speed has always lagged behind conventional technology and now University of Wisconsin Madison researchers have created what they say are the first carbon nanotube transistors that outpace modern silicon.


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Apparently the trick was to find a way to find almost entirely pure carbon nanotubes, eliminating more of the imperfections that would limit their semiconducting traits. Researchers had to assemble the nanotubes on a wafer using an exact order and spacing through polymers, and cook the resulting arrays in a vacuum over to remove an insulating layer between the nanotubes and the electrodes needed for the transistor. The end product manages a current 1.9 times higher than in silicon.


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There’s plenty of refinement left before you see carbon nanotubes in practical chips and going from the lab to full commercialisation of an emerging technology takes time but for now another barrier has fallen. The team still has to adapt its current product to the geometry of a conventional silicon transistor, and it has to scale the technology in a way that would work for mass production. If the university manages to pull this off, though, the breakthrough could have a very tangible impact on just about every device you use. You could expect more raw number crunching power, of course, but you’d also get longer battery life and faster wireless data.

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