Small is big: a cellphone chip that allows monthly battery charge
When small is big: Tinier chips demand less energy and could produce a cellphone that needs a battery charge only once a month.
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In 2007, another group, led by Alex Zettl at the University of California in Berkeley, built a radio consisting of a single nanotube. It hummed out an Eric Clapton tune that it picked up from a small radio transmitter inside the lab.Skip to next paragraph
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Those are fun proofs of principle, but the challenge for now is showing reliability. Transistors, the tiny electrical switches that turn on and off more than a billion times per second as a computer runs software, have to behave predictably – or else the computer crashes. When a small university lab can produce a few thousand of these transistors without any duds, says Pop, "we're actually in the realm where people in industry will start taking us more seriously."
Graphene and nanotubes are just two of a number of technologies being explored in order to reduce the power needs of computers.
It's easy to have rosy expectations that these next-generation electronics will hit the shelves soon – after all, silicon electronics have grown explosively for 40 years, with the number of transistors on a chip doubling every couple of years. But looking more closely at that history tells a different story. The first transistor was built in 1947. Yet even simple gizmos like the BusiCom calculator didn't appear until 1971.
In fact, the silicon revolution required having a whole constellation of manufacturing technologies converge at the right time, says John Maltabes, an engineer now at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, with 30 years of experience using light to etch circuits onto silicon chips. These technologies were necessary for transistors to be produced quickly enough, cheaply enough, and – above all – reliably enough, because one bad transistor out of 2 billion can ruin a whole chip.
Some observers estimate that developing a replacement for today's chips will take 30 years – and cost $100 billion. If these technologies happen, they may first appear in high-end military, medical, or aerospace applications. Government may fund part of their development, just as it did for jet airplanes and supersonic jets decades ago.
From that point, whether post-silicon computers really do enter the average person's life (as the Boeing 747 did) or remain exotic and high-end (as supersonic flight did) will depend on two things, says David Jimenez, a manufacturing analyst at the firm Wright Williams and Kelly in Pleasanton, Calif. "One is, can we build it? And second, if we can build it, what is it going to cost?"
Editor's note: This article is No. 1 of the FutureFocus package "5 Innovations Changing the World".
IN PICTURES: FUTURE FOCUS: TECHNOLOGY