New Science – October 2022

Today’s blog looks at some new technologies that may someday have an impact on computing and broadband. We’re living in a time when labs everywhere are making some big breakthroughs with new technology, and it’s hard to predict which ones will become part of our everyday lives.

Artificial Synapses. Engineers at MIT have developed a new kind of artificial synapse that can process data several million times faster than the human brain. The human brain is still the best computer in the world due to the unique structure of neurons and synapses. Scientists have been working for years to try to mimic the structure of the human brain by developing chips that can perform multiple computations simultaneously using data stored in local memory instead of elsewhere. Early work in the field has created neural networks to mimic the way the brain works.

The new technology differs from past attempts by using protons instead of electrons to shuttle data. The scientists created a new kind of programmable resistor that uses protons and which allows for the use of analog processing instead of precise digital processing. The core of the new device is phosphosilicate glass (PSG), which is silicon dioxide with added phosphorus. This material allows for the passage of protons at room temperature while blocking electrons.  A strong electric field can move protons through the chip at almost the speed of light, allowing for the processing of data a million times faster than earlier neural nets.

Replacement of Silicon? Researchers at the EPFL School of Engineering in Lucerne, Switzerland have discovered some interesting properties of vanadium dioxide that would allow building devices that can remember previous external stimuli. This might allow for making chips out of VO­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­2 that would play the same role today as silicon while also acting as a data storage medium. This would allow for the storage of data directly as part of the structure of a chip.

Scientists found in the past that VO2 can outperform silicon as a semiconductor. VO2 also has an interesting characteristic where it changes from an insulator to a metal at 154 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers found that when VO2 is heated and then cooled that it remembers any data stored at the higher temperature. The researchers believe that VO2 can be used to create permanent data storage that would be embedded directly into the material comprising a chip.

One-Way Superconductor. Scientists at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, along with scientists from Johns Hopkins, have been able to create one-way superconductivity without using magnetic fields – something that was thought to be impossible.  This would be an amazing breakthrough because semiconductors that use superconducting materials would be hundreds of times faster than chips today with zero energy loss during data processing – something that might remove much of the heat created in data centers.

The researchers have found the possibility by using Trinobiumoctabromide (Nb3Br8). They were able to create diodes with a film of the material only a few atoms thick to create a Josephson diode, which are the core component for quantum computing.

The biggest challenge remaining for the team is to enable the superconducting diode to function at temperatures above 77K, which would enable functioning using liquid nitrogen cooling. One of the challenges of all superconductors has been the ability to enable the process at anything other than super-cold temperatures. But it’s not hard to envision using the technology to create large data centers of quantum computers.

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