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Nanotubes Rescue IT Revolution

Scientists at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center have made an important breakthrough: they’ve figured out how to use carbon nanotubes as a replacement for silicon in making the tiny transistors that are the building blocks of modern microchips. The New York Times Bits Blog explains why this matters:

The I.B.M. advance is significant, scientists said, because the chip-making industry has not yet found a way forward beyond the next two or three generations of silicon.

“This is terrific. I’m really excited about this,” said Subhasish Mitra, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford who specializes in carbon nanotube materials.

The promise of the new materials is twofold, he said: carbon nanotubes will allow chip makers to build smaller transistors while also probably increasing the speed at which they can be turned on and off.

In recent years, while chip makers have continued to double the number of transistors on chips, their performance, measured as “clock speed,” has largely stalled.

This has required the computer industry to change its designs and begin building more so-called parallel computers. Today, even smartphone microprocessors come with as many as four processors, or “cores,” which are used to break up tasks so they can be processed simultaneously.

I.B.M. scientists say they believe that once they have perfected the use of carbon nanotubes — sometime after the end of this decade — it will be possible to sharply increase the speed of chips while continuing to sharply increase the number of transistors.

Via Meadia readers know that this isn’t just about faster and smaller devices. Information technology is the driving force behind many of the changes in our life. It is creating disruptions for entire industries, like higher ed, medicine and law—as well sowing the seeds of the innovations that will deliver the jobs of the future. And one of the main drivers of IT itself is the seemingly relentless progress on the hardware side of things. This breakthrough suggests that the revolution in IT, with all its attendant challenges and opportunities, still has a long way to go. Hold on tight!

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