Smaller, faster and more efficient than silicon circuits
Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are microscopic tubes whose walls are one carbon atom thick. First introduced to the technology world in 1991 in a paper by Sumio Iijima, carbon nanotubes are semiconductors with incredible potential in the world of electronics. They provide an exciting alternative to the traditional silicon circuitry found in our current computers.
Carbon nanotubes have a diameter of one nanometre, which is the equivalent of one ten thousandth the width of a human hair. This tiny size means that the number transistors that can be placed on a CNT chip far exceeds the number of that can be placed on a silicon chip, greatly increasing computing power relative to space. What’s more, CNT chips are much faster and more efficient than silicon chips. They generate less heat, removing the need for the fans that are currently required in computers.
Current prototypes in nanotube electronics point to some of the futuristic CNT devices we can look forward to in the future. It is possible to coat cotton threads in nanotubes and weave them into wearable electronic cloth. This could power LEDs in our clothes or act as a biosensor to detect bleeding in patients or soldiers on the battlefield. Carbon nanotubes could also be used to create flexible and stretchable electronics, and pave the way to fully printable circuit boards.
Whilst the sophistication of nanotube circuits outstrips silicon in size, speed and efficiency, their electrical properties are yet to be successfully exploited commercially. One hurdle in their commercialisation is that when several carbon nanotubes are assembled together, they don’t preserve the remarkable electrical properties displayed by a single tube. IBM is one of several companies tackling this scalability problem, as they strive to make CNT chips commercially available over the next few years.
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