Proposed 'Nanomechanical' Computer is Both Old-School and Cutting-Edge

August 3, 2007 by Laura Mgrdichian feature

A group of engineers have proposed a novel approach to computing: computers made of billionth-of-a-meter-sized mechanical elements. Their idea combines the modern field of nanoscience with the mechanical engineering principles used to design the earliest computers.

In a recent paper in the New Journal of Physics, the researchers, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UWM), describe how such a nanomechanical computer could be designed, built, and put to use.

Their work is a contemporary take on one of the very first computer designs: the “difference engine,” a 15-ton, eight-foot-high mechanical calculator designed by English mathematician and engineer Charles Babbage beginning in 1822. Corresponding UWM scientist Robert Blick said that he was also inspired by the design of a small hand-cranked mechanical calculator invented and sold in the 1950s, the Curta.

The computer they envision could never be as fast as traditional semiconductor-based computers, where individual transistors can operate at 100 gigahertz (GHz). However, Blick told PhysOrg.com, “We designed the circuits in this nanomechanical computer with the idea in mind that, at the nanoscale, mechanical motion is quite fast – 100 megahertz to a few gigahertz. This should make them competitive with existing micro-processors, which are used in a variety of mundane applications.”

Among these applications are appliances, electronic toys, and automobiles, all which contain basic computers in order to function but don't require ultra-fast processors.

The design's basic unit is the “nanomechanical single-electron transistor,” or NEMSET, a tiny circuit component that combines a typical silicon transistor with a nanoscale mechanical switch – a tiny moving part. A full circuit composed of multiple NEMSETs could be created, the researchers say, using one step of photolithography and one step of etching, methods commonly used to create silicon-based circuits.

The nanomechanical computer has three main advantages compared to semiconductor-based computers. It is more resilient to electric shock, its circuits can operate at significantly higher temperatures (several hundred degrees Celsius), and it is much more energy efficient, dissipating a fraction of the energy of traditional computers.

Additionally, the computer's memory structure may have an edge over standard memory. A nanomechanical form of memory may not need to be restricted to the “1” and “0” states that a typical computer uses to store a single bit (the most basic unit of information; these values correspond to a memory cell that is either charged or uncharged). A nanomechanical system could have several stable states, allowing for more efficient data storage.

Citation: Robert H Blick, Hua Qin, Hyun-Seok Kim and Robert Marsland, “A nanomechanical computer—exploring new avenues of computing” New Journal of Physics 9 (2007) 241.

Copyright 2007 PhysOrg.com.
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of PhysOrg.com.

Explore further: Mechanical quanta see the light

Related Stories

Mechanical quanta see the light

January 19, 2016

Interconnecting different quantum systems is important for future quantum computing architectures, but has proven difficult to achieve. Researchers from the TU Delft and the University of Vienna have now realized a first ...

Nanomechanical device bridges classic and quantum physics

February 9, 2005

Nanotechnology leapt into the realm of quantum mechanics this past winter when an antenna-like sliver of silicon one-tenth the width of a human hair oscillated in a lab in a Boston University basement. With two sets of protrusions, ...

Recommended for you

Breakthrough in ultra-fast data processing at nanoscale

October 20, 2017

A research team from the National University of Singapore has recently invented a novel "converter" that can harness the speed and small size of plasmons for high frequency data processing and transmission in nanoelectronics.

Art advancing science at the nanoscale

October 18, 2017

Like many other scientists, Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., the Founding Director of the Wyss Institute, is concerned that non-scientists have become skeptical and even fearful of his field at a time when technology can offer solutions ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.