How Nanotechnology Is Changing the Way We Design and Build Computers

Nanotechnology isn't science fiction, it's changing the way we compute.
Trevor English

Nanotechnology in computing is growing more and more prominent as computers continue to be optimized for smaller and smaller dimensions.

Nanotechnology specifically is the application of "extremely small things" in technology, which can be extrapolated to cover any number of technologies that utilize parts nanometers in thickness.

The entire technology sector is continually being advanced by the latest trends and technological inventions and nanotechnology promises to make computers faster, more powerful, and run smoother all in a smaller total volume. It's a promising sector in computing, but to understand how prominent of a role it is playing, first, we should take a step back and get a better picture of just what nanotechnology is in the first place. 

What is nanotechnology?

The ideas behind nanotechnology date back originally to concepts proposed by physicist Richard Feynman. While speaking at the California Institute of Technology in 1959, he began describing processes that would allow scientists and engineers to control and manipulate singular atoms and molecules. It was in this discussion that Feynman first coined the term "nanotechnology".

It wouldn't be until the early 1980s when scanning microscopes were used to observe individual atoms, let alone the technology to manipulate it.

On a technical scale, nanotechnology can be a little hard to grasp. One nanometer is equivalent to a billionth of a meter. Even that though, is a little hard to grasp how utterly tiny that size is. For perspective, there are 25.4 million nanometers in one inch, and perhaps even greater perspective, if one standard marble was the size of a nanometer, the earth would be equivalent to just 1 meter in size.


Nanotechnology is small. Most nanotechnology requires highly powerful microscopes to develop and see, given that the actual structures are the equivalent size of atoms. 

The tools utilized in the nanotechnology space are the scanning tunneling microscope, or STM, and the atomic force microscope, or AFM. It's through these two types of microscopes that much of the nanotechnology sector has formed. 


One interesting fact about the history of nanotechnology is that it's technically been used for thousands of years. Back in the early days of stained glass creation, gold and silver particles were added to the glass mixture to alter the colors of the glass. Little did the glass smiths know at the time, but this addition was actually changing the molecular structure of the glass, not just the color. 

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How nanotechnology is changing computing

Moving into nanotechnology in the computing sector, we can begin to develop a better grasp of just how prominent the technology is in the space. 

Carbon nanotubes are one technology that is aiding in the development of smaller and faster transistor designs, primarily at the hands of IBM. IBM is developing these carbon nanotube transistors to try and prevent the obsolescence of silicon-based transistors. After 2020, this year, it's theorized that silicon transistors will have reached their physical limit for optimization. Carbon nanotube-based transistors, on the other hand, would provide a replacement that continues to be optimized.

Much of the goal behind this push to create smaller and smaller transistors for computers is to keep up with Moore's Law. This law, or more prediction, is one that states that the number of transistors that can be packed into a circuit of a given size will double every two years. 


Keeping up with this would mean that by the end of this year, engineers would need to be able to create transistor structures smaller than 5 nanometers.

One of the biggest issues with carbon nanotube transistors is that, while researchers are able to make them incredibly small, their performance as transistors is below that of silicon transistors. However, researchers are fast approaching solutions to overcome this issue. Scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are developing carbon nanotube transistors capable of outperforming silicon ones. In fact, their tested performance was 1.9 times higher than silicon transistors.  

If scalable and duplicatable, this would mark one of the most significant advancements in practical transistor design in the last several decades. All at the hands of nanotechnology.

Top researchers in the field theorize that carbon nanotube transistors should be able to operate at 5 times the speed and 5 times less energy than silicon transistors. However, that's in an ideal scenario. The real issue in this realm of computing nanotechnology is actually making and isolating the carbon nanotube transistors. 

It's quite hard to isolate pure carbon nanotubes to use for transistors. Impurities in any bit of the nanotube essentially make the transistor useless.

As you can tell from this look at nanotechnology development within the realm of carbon nanotubes, nothing is easy when you are working at such a diminished scale. 

Within the realm of computer science, nanotechnology is also being evaluated as a better way of data transfer. Away from physical nanodevices, physicists are investigating using something known as nanophotonics. This would transmit nano-sized optical signals to encode and decode data. 


Altogether though, nanotechnology has and will play a major role in the furthering of computer science and computer development. With humanities ever-growing abilities to create and monitor aspects of the world on the nanometer scale, there's no question that the future of modern computing and the future of modern technology is, in fact, nanotechnology.

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