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New Alternatives To Silicon May Increase Chip Speeds By Orders of Magnitude. 139

First time accepted submitter Consistent1 writes "A paywalled article in the "Nature Materials" journal describes the use of Magnetite to achieve ultra fast electronic switching, albeit, at the moment, only at extremely low temperatures. According to a story on Quartz, the team, led by Dr. Hermann Dürr from the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences hopes 'to continue the experiment with materials that can operate at room temperature. One possibility is vanadium dioxide.' Chips utilizing this technology may operate at clock cycles thousands of times faster than the silicon-based chips used today."
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New Alternatives To Silicon May Increase Chip Speeds By Orders of Magnitude.

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  • Hummm... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gagol ( 583737 ) on Monday July 29, 2013 @05:15AM (#44410593)
    I taught we already had gallium-arsenide transistors. The problem is cost as it is reserved for application where power enveloppe is very thin (earing aids) and switching speed is critical (telecom equipment).
    • Re:Hummm... (Score:5, Informative)

      by jwinterm ( 2740003 ) on Monday July 29, 2013 @07:43AM (#44410921)

      I taught we already had gallium-arsenide transistors. The problem is cost as it is reserved for application where power enveloppe is very thin (earing aids) and switching speed is critical (telecom equipment).

      Another problem with GaAs and other III-V semiconductors is that they do not scale well, and so you can not pack as many transistors on a chip, and so they just can not compete with silicon in logic. They are quite useful for other applications, but not in your computer. Besides the low temperature hurdle, it's not clear if these new materials will face the same cost and scalability problems as III-Vs.

      • by AdamHaun ( 43173 )

        Wasn't it also hard to make decent P-type MOSFETS? I seem to remember that GaAs electron mobility is much higher than hole mobility, but it's been a long time since that one semiconductors class in college.

        • by Agripa ( 139780 )

          Besides not being suitable for complementary devices, GaAs also has no native oxide insulator.

    • by Seumas ( 6865 )

      Did you . . . just call them . . . EARING AIDS . . . .?

      • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

        Yeah. They help you put earrings in.

        Wait, what?

        • Yeah. They help you put earrings in.

          So, I need to get my step-daughter an EARING AID so that she can get her earrings in her ears not all over her face?

          She will be so delighted by this news. I shall tell her immediately so that her reaction will happen in another country.

    • One of the reasons silicon is great for mass-produced anything: silicon simply happens to be one of the most common and easily refined elements on Earth. For electronics, on top of being much cheaper than exotic materials, silicon's chemical properties (generally inert) makes it much easier to work with at high temperatures and caustic chemicals than most other materials.

      • One of the reasons silicon is great for mass-produced anything: silicon simply happens to be one of the most common and easily refined elements on Earth.

        The fact that pure silicon is an intrinsic semiconductor doesn't hurt, either. Just try making intrinsic GaAs...the amount of precision required to avoid making p-type or n-type material is ridiculous.

  • Only thing missing from the title to completely disqualify the article is ', scientists say.' No, I didn't bother even reading the summary.
    • Bet you were also expecting this one when you read the title: "albeit, at the moment, only at extremely low temperatures"
      I know I was.

  • If this technology became mainstream, I'd bet my IBM Model M13 that people would still try to overclock the shit out of it.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      There would not be a lot of sense in a clocked design. If we are talking about a pico second switching speed, any signal would only travel about 0.3mm in that time. That really calls for clockless operation.

      Clockless operation will likely converge faster at lower temperatures due to lower thermal noise, so the overclockers would focus their attention on undercooling.

    • by cupantae ( 1304123 ) <maroneill&gmail,com> on Monday July 29, 2013 @06:09AM (#44410711)

      With a normal operating temperature of -190C, you'd probably need an extra fan or something to overclock it.

  • by Racemaniac ( 1099281 ) on Monday July 29, 2013 @05:33AM (#44410645)

    I thought one of the main issues with increasing clockspeeds on processors besides heat is also the latency. at 3 Ghz a signal can only travel 10 cm anymore, and processors already have stages in their pipelines just to get the signals around. So going 1000 fasters would have to mean some major changes in how processors work i guess? since having your signal only travel 0.1 mm per clock pulse makes it rather hard to get the data around...

    • by darkHanzz ( 2579493 ) on Monday July 29, 2013 @05:37AM (#44410655) Journal

      since having your signal only travel 0.1 mm per clock pulse makes it rather hard to get the data around...

      There's still plenty of fixed-function hardware around (wlan chipsets, even though they're somewhat programmable) for which this might not be a major issue.

      • That's true, there are also chips that are meant for other purposed than computing, what bottlenecks do currently exists that current chipspeeds can't handle? You give the example of wlan chipsets, what would a faster chip improve for them?

        • How about high speed and high gain amplifiers? Not everything revolves around digital logic.
          • i don't know anything about such chips, so care to explain why they would benefit from being faster? :)

            • by gagol ( 583737 )
              Very VERY high frequency radio signal amplifiers? (radio telescope and all)
            • Look up bandwidth-gain product and microwave electronics. Perhaps sometimes it's just better to not assume you know better than the researchers?
        • Many WLAN chipsets today use SDR(software defined radio), so most of the design is just a big DSP - so more clock speed = more complex algos. Alternatively since you'd likely have multiple channels in operation each of which probably has its own DSP by going faster you could put multiple channels onto a single DSP so save silicon area.
          Or if you had hardened part of the algos into custom logic you could ease the memory latency requirements/move the hardened parts into DSP to save area.
          Or move parts of the de

        • For the current generation/standards at most some power efficiency. More processing power might allow better coding schemes, better beamforming (=less interference), smaller circuits (since less has to be done in parallel). So in the end it'll mostly come down to power efficiency. []
    • by HetMes ( 1074585 )
      True, with conventional design the gain is questonable. But at least this would open up a new branch in chip design, and it would be interesting to see what comes out of it.
    • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Monday July 29, 2013 @06:30AM (#44410737) Journal

      Latency is a problem certainly, but there's still some headroom. With a pipelined processor the signal doesn't have to propagate further than the next stage (ok that simplifies it a bit). At the moment, a top end processor is of order 1cm across (and now that's mostly cache and graphics), and even quite substantial ARM cores are down into the fairly small number of mm.

      I suspect that unlike in the good old days, much like increasing transistor count no longer increases performance linearly, the same will go with clock speed once the processor is around one wavelength across.

      One hypothetical way would be to have lots of really tiny, simple processors which are 0.01mm across, and then juice them up to 3THz.

      • Ahh but remember the distance we are talking about isn't linear, but rather wire length. It is how far the electrons must travel through the pathways on the chip. That can wind up being larger.

        Signal propagation is a real issue with high clock speeds. I'm not saying it is a kiss of death or anything, but it is something that can cause real issues with design.

      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        True that, but cache latencies will have to go vastly up measured in clock cycles. If we say 3GHz = 10cm then 3THz = 0,1mm and an SO-DIMM module is 6.76cm across, you go from <1 cycle to 676 cycle latency just crossing the module. At those rates keeping the CPU fed with data might be the biggest challenge.

        • by tibit ( 1762298 )

          I think only distributed transputer-style processing will be able to tackle that efficiently. Big networks of small CPUs with local memories will be "it". Assuming 0.2mmx0.2mm size of one compute-memory element, we'd have 4,000 such elements fit on a Haswell die.

      • by tibit ( 1762298 )

        So, the transputer [] is going to get a comeback? :) But seriously, transputers are alive and well []. I'd salivate ever so slightly given an XMOS slice running at 1THz.

    • I don't think that's such a big problem: you can still have large numbers of small processors that are extremely fast on local data but take a bit more to communicate with each other. There have been plenty of parallel machines like that already. Think Beowulf cluster, just on a much smaller scale.

    • So going 1000 fasters would have to mean some major changes in how processors work i guess? since having your signal only travel 0.1 mm per clock pulse makes it rather hard to get the data around...

      It seems like it would just change the design optimization criteria, making spatial distance dramatically between components dramatically more important than it is now. 3D chip design would become crucial, since it enables shorter paths. Of course, moving from flat or shallowly-layered designs to spherical construction would make heat dissipation an even bigger challenge than it is now, and would require completely new fabrication approaches.

      Still "We have lots of really complex engineering problems to so

    • How much energy it takes to switch 0/1 states? What voltage? As I am not in the field, it would take me too much time to extract this information from the article (what is "trimeron annihilation" and how/does it relate the classical hole-electron recombination?).

      I assume that it is possible to be 1000 faster only if it takes considerably less energy to switch states. It means that even if the latency constrains the speed, it would still produce less heat and will allow simpler clock/power lines.

      As I unders

    • How many times i been telling you man, scour all the tech articles you want, research the hardware, have some nerd open up your case. You just really suck at Quake.


    • by tibit ( 1762298 )

      Nope. The signal can travel as far as you wish, as evidenced by the DSN (deep space network) using the 8.5 and 32GHz bands at pretty significant distances within our Solar System. Voyager comms are in the 8.5GHz band IIRC.

      The fact that the length of a clock pulse is physically small (on the order of 1mm) only makes it interesting from the engineering side of things, not impossible.

      • if you read the entire comment, you would've noticed i meant per clockpulse, and that getting information around in processors at high frequencies is becoming a problem.

        • by tibit ( 1762298 )

          It's only an engineering problem in the sense that pipelines are no more logical concepts, they have physical representation and you can't skip it. Those are of course solvable problems, only that the current CPU architectures aren't amenable to such treatment. That's not the end of the world, though, even now MS is pushing for parallelizing compilation.

    • by delt0r ( 999393 )
      It has been suggested that this problem can be solved with asynchronous logic. An example of different signalling with very short switch times is with Rapid single flux quantum (RSFQ) logic.
  • Will it pan out? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by wbr1 ( 2538558 ) on Monday July 29, 2013 @08:05AM (#44410973)
    I seem to remember about 10 or so years ago a bit of talk about diamond semiconductors.

    IIRC, making P-type material was easy doping with boron, and someone had finally come up with a way to make n-type material.

    In addition, around that time there were two or three startups looking to manufacture diamonds using various -cheaper- processes. The combination of these things was supposes to give is diamond based chips that, due to the incredible heat resistance of diamond, could tolerate much more heat and hence higher clock cycles.

    Does anyone know where this went?

    • by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Nowhere. Just as likely this will go nowhere.

    • They probably realized that CPUs rarely fail because of high temps. The board around it fails because of high temps. So the diamond chip would kill its board.
    • Does anyone know where this went?

      The usual destination for exotic semiconductors: no way to build a good gate dielectric or field dielectric. In other words, not manufacturable in volume.

  • Does this mean I should stop having my dwarves smelt it into iron bars?

    • You can still use limonite or hematite i believe. You should also consider upgrading your facilities to produce something nicer [].
  • The thing that immediately occurs to me is that this won't replace silicon. Silicon is massively available, it works, is well used and understood. Vanadium, in comparison is not. Plus, isn't it toxic? I know the semiconductor industry isn't what you would call green, but introducing an even more toxic element into the mix might not go down too well. I suspect this might, at the very best, have limited use in specialist applications. Making your computer thousands of times faster simply isn't going to happe
  • Ultra-fast circuits at very low temperatures are a very old thing: Josephson-circuits do it. That technology did not deliver, just as this one will not. Why the stupid headline?

  • At 3.5Ghz light travels 8.6cm per clock cycle. A thousand time performance improvement would mean ~86 micrometers. Ie roughly 400 transistor widths at current feature size. Since there are about a billion transistors in a chip assuming a square configuration you'd have ~31600 transistors on a side. Ie your 1000X chip would take ~75 cycles just to cross from one side of the CPU to the other. That is assuming speed of light which electrons definitely don't achieve. You still have to get electrons from RAM, di

    • At 3.5Ghz light travels 8.6cm per clock cycle. A thousand time performance improvement would mean ~86 micrometers.

      And have losses of more than 20 dB depending on the materials used for interconnect. Which means that the signal would have either be rebuffered every few microns or recovered at the receiver with something comparable to PCI Express but a thousand times faster.

  • Abundance of Vanadium: Earth's Crust/p.p.m.: 160

    Abundance of Silicon: Earth's Crust/p.p.m.: 277100

    • That's not because vanadium is rare but because silicon is absurdly abundant; there's more vanadium than chlorine, lithium, cobalt, copper...

      I really doubt scarcity is an issue here.

  • There is a reason we use different materials for high end optical and electrical switches. In material science we unfortunately see this all the time, where an optics group measures some interaction in a highly controlled environment and then projects that result onto a very complex electrical circuit. Generally optics groups which get published in places like Nature don't consider that they're measuring properties that are not actually relevant to a practical electrical circuit and not the only propertie

  • by overshoot ( 39700 ) on Monday July 29, 2013 @09:58AM (#44411761)

    Of course, most of the delay that limits clock speeds now is in the interconnect and not the switching devices. We're already using copper conductors and low-K dielectrics, so the next step is going to have to be superconducting interconnects.

    Until then, it's mostly a laboratory curiousity.

  • Not Obvious (Score:2, Funny)

    by b4upoo ( 166390 )

    I strongly suspect that people are already suffering from future shock but have not put a finger on what is going on. Technology is a huge cause of job and social displacement at this time. It is not just the economy that is causing such chaos but the fact that less people can do a lot more work due to technology. Very fast and very smart computers will accelerate this pending upheaval. I am all for it but we need to be paying attention and doing triage on the wounded and displaced and even learn

    • We also are on the edge of fast food joints that no longer need humans in the cooking areas.

      Good, maybe one day we will consider pre-licked taco shells, or hamburgers with a splash of teenage junk a specialty item.

    • No, only slow economy causes job displacement. there is plenty of work to do that technology has created. in US the biggest increase in hiring is in "leisure and entertainment", followed by professional and business services, then retail.....this and housing market coming alive will soon ripple into manufacturing and construction

      it's silly to be of the mindset, OMG, the lamp lighters and buggy whip makers and horseshoe smiths and chimney sweeps will starve!

  • Isn't magnetite that natural iron form they make trinkets of to sell in Jamaican bazaars, typically in the form of animatable copluating humans, for placement as a dongle on mechanical security device unlocking portable storage ring?

    Oh wait, that's its brother hematite.

  • Silicon replaced GaAs in the 1970s even though it was slower, because it could manufactured smaller for a much lower cost.
    • from the 70s to the 90s there also was reliability problem with massive transistor count GaAs chips, a battle Seymour Cray was fighting

  • We can already make silicon faster than we do, electromigration [] is why we don't. Switching to a different wafer material doesn't change the fact that we still have to interconnect the transistors somehow.

1 1 was a race-horse, 2 2 was 1 2. When 1 1 1 1 race, 2 2 1 1 2.