While computers continue to get smaller, they're constantly being pushed to do more. Whether they're doubling as a phone, a camera, or an MP3 player, there seems to be no end to the tasks we expect them to carry out. And as always, we say we want them to "do all that stuff and be smaller."
A limitation of the miniaturization process is that the more computers are asked to do, the more memory they require. One of the computer's basic elements, the transistor, could soon reach its miniaturization limit. The smaller we make transistors, the more susceptible they are to quantum phenomena like electrons tunneling through the barriers between wires. Which, while ticklish for the barrier, can just be really annoying.
This has apparently annoyed researchers at the U.K.'s University of Nottingham, as well, albeit for different reasons. This transistor dilemma has led them to look into the viability of carbon nanotubes to help create fast, cheap, and compact memory that uses little power.
Memory falls into three categories: DRAM, SRAM, and Flash. Both DRAM and SRAM require an external power supply to retain data, but Flash, which is non-volatile memory, does not. Flash memory, however, has slower read-write cycles than DRAM.
The University of Nottingham explains the actual process much better than I ever could: "Carbon nanotubes--if one nanotube sits inside another, slightly larger, one, the inner tube will 'float' within the outer, responding to electrostatic, van der Waals--which governs attraction between molecules--and capillary forces."
"Passing power through the nanotubes allows the inner tube to be pushed in and out of the outer tube. This telescoping action can either connect or disconnect the inner tube to an electrode, creating the 'zero' or 'one' states required to store information using binary code. When the power source is switched off, van der Waals force keeps the Inner tube in contact with the electrode. This makes the memory storage non-volatile, like Flash memory."
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has opted to fund the "nanodevices for data storage" project. Researchers from multiple scientific institutions plan to pool their knowledge and resources to help develop the materials and methods required for the new technology.
They will also explore the feasibility of applying the technology to medical science. There is the potential to treat cancer patients by targeting individual cancerous cells. This would be made possible by the nanotube tech to create "nanothermometers" that could differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells.
I love the idea that a new technology whose original purpose was to give us smaller tech could be used to potentially save lives. Here's hoping it actually works and that the funding keeps rolling in.