At Stanford, carbon nanotubes are the computer

The first carbon nanotube-based computer is here, hinting at a post-silicon world where computers are faster and more energy efficient.

Stanford researchers announced in Nature today that they built a central processing unit, the chip responsible for carrying out a computer’s tasks, with 142 transistors made from carbon nanotubes.

Current computers can contain billions of transistors made from silicon. While the transistors continue to get smaller, allowing more transistors to be packed in, researchers will eventually hit a wall in terms of how small they can make them. Carbon nanotubes, which are made of microscopic strands of rolled up sheets of carbon atoms, allow the production of much smaller transistors.

Carbon nanotube-based transistors were first made 15 years ago. Researchers have since built hybrid chips that used a combination of nanotubes and more mature materials.

The full-carbon nanotube machine is slow and basic, but future research will undoubtedly lead to systems that incorporate many more than 142 carbon nanotube transistors.

“Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) have long been considered as a potential successor to the silicon transistor,” electronic systems and circuits expert Jan Rabaey said in a release. “There is no question that this will get the attention of researchers in the semiconductor community and entice them to explore how this technology can lead to smaller, more energy-efficient processors in the next decade.”