Researchers produce world's first programmable nanoprocessor

February 9, 2011, Harvard University
This is a false-color scanning electron microscopy image of a programmable nanowire nanoprocessor super-imposed on a schematic nanoprocessor circuit architecture. Credit: Photo courtesy of Charles M. Lieber, Harvard University

Engineers and scientists collaborating at Harvard University and the MITRE Corporation have developed and demonstrated the world's first programmable nanoprocessor.

The groundbreaking prototype computer system, described in a paper appearing today in the journal Nature, represents a significant step forward in the complexity of computer circuits that can be assembled from synthesized nanometer-scale components.

It also represents an advance because these ultra-tiny nanocircuits can be programmed electronically to perform a number of basic arithmetic and logical functions.

"This work represents a quantum jump forward in the complexity and function of circuits built from the bottom up, and thus demonstrates that this bottom-up paradigm, which is distinct from the way commercial circuits are built today, can yield nanoprocessors and other integrated systems of the future," says principal investigator Charles M. Lieber, who holds a joint appointment at Harvard's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The work was enabled by advances in the design and synthesis of nanowire building blocks. These nanowire components now demonstrate the reproducibility needed to build functional , and also do so at a size and material complexity difficult to achieve by traditional top-down approaches.

Moreover, the tiled architecture is fully scalable, allowing the assembly of much larger and ever more functional nanoprocessors.

"For the past 10 to 15 years, researchers working with nanowires, carbon nanotubes, and other have struggled to build all but the most basic circuits, in large part due to variations in properties of individual nanostructures," says Lieber, the Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry. "We have shown that this limitation can now be overcome and are excited about prospects of exploiting the bottom-up paradigm of biology in building future electronics."

An additional feature of the advance is that the circuits in the nanoprocessor operate using very little power, even allowing for their miniscule size, because their component nanowires contain transistor switches that are "nonvolatile."

This means that unlike transistors in conventional microcomputer circuits, once the nanowire transistors are programmed, they do not require any additional expenditure of electrical power for maintaining memory.

"Because of their very small size and very low power requirements, these new nanoprocessor circuits are building blocks that can control and enable an entirely new class of much smaller, lighter weight electronic sensors and consumer electronics," says co-author Shamik Das, the lead engineer in MITRE's Nanosystems Group.

"This new nanoprocessor represents a major milestone toward realizing the vision of a nanocomputer that was first articulated more than 50 years ago by physicist Richard Feynman," says James Ellenbogen, a chief scientist at MITRE.

Explore further: Scientists bend nanowires into 2-D and 3-D structures

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Display comments: newest first

3.3 / 5 (12) Feb 09, 2011
What can they do? How big are they? What is the size of their smallest feature?

Great technology, lousy article. Leaves more questions than required.
3.9 / 5 (13) Feb 09, 2011
It's news. If it interests you, look into it. Go buy Nature and read the paper.
3.2 / 5 (9) Feb 09, 2011
Why to pay for informations about research, which is sponsored from public taxes already?
not rated yet Feb 09, 2011
There are germanium wires 10 nanometres across making up about 500 programmable transistors in "an area of 960 micrometres" (sic).

not rated yet Feb 09, 2011
you can see the little dots, guess squares don't work well with the shape when you have thick nanowires to thread this device into more traditional electronics.
3.4 / 5 (5) Feb 10, 2011
Why to pay for informations about research, which is sponsored from public taxes already?

Because the journal is not sponsored by public taxes.
1 / 5 (3) Feb 10, 2011
Another article written by someone who knows absolutely nothing about the subject. Just quotes things.
not rated yet Feb 11, 2011
Well, I guess the most important thing to take from this article is that it was done from a bottom-up approach.

Ironically, Intel has already claimed a "clear path" to 10nm and even 6nm process technology by around 2022, so the "top down" approach may eventually be just as good anyway for a while.

The difficulty in the top down approach is that the tools waste a lot of space and material due to "cutting away" what you don't need, compared to theoretical bottom-up approaches.

Bottom-up approaches should theoretically be able to eventually make row after row of transistors and wires with almost no wasted space.

Top-down approaches eventually waste more space than they use, which we have long since passed that point.

So far, it doesn't look like this is an actual "improvement" on anything, other than the fact that they demonstrated a bottom-up process which "works".

NOw they need to make a bottom-up device which actually works better than a leading top-down device...

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