August 09, 2013
As computer chips got faster over the years, chip designers have experimented with exotic semiconductor materials, including forms of arsenic, in hope of exceeding the performance limitations imposed by silicon. It turns out that a potential 1,000x boost in switching speeds may be had by utilizing good old magnetite, the common magnetic mineral found all over the earth.
Experiments with magnetite conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have found some startling characteristics of the mineral, which for years has been to record data onto hard disks and analog tape.
In the experiments at the SLAC facility, scientists shot a piece of magnetite with a laser, which caused the electrons to become either electrically conductive or non-conductive, according to a story on the Discovery News website.
Little islands of conductivity were also generated, surrounded by areas with insulated properties. Then the magnetite was then hit with a short x-ray pulse to determine how quickly the magnetite can go from a conducting to a non-conducting state, and to see what shape the molecules took as they switched.
According to the results, it takes a billionth of a billionth of a second to make the switch. That sort of speed translates into the capability of a magnetite-based transistor to perform trillions of calculations per second, a factor of 1,000 better than a silicon-based transistor, which maxes out in the billions-of-calculations-per-second range.
The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature in a June 24 article titled "Speed limit of the insulator-metal transition in magnetite."
There has been a lot of research into the possible use of magnetite with semiconductors over the years. The big breakthrough delivered by the SLAC researchers is the identification of the exact mechanism of the insulator-metal transition, the researchers say in the introduction to their paper.
Don't expect magnetite transistors to make their way into household electronics or supercomputers any time soon. There's a lot more research required before engineers can capitalize on the knowledge. For starters, the experiments conducted at the SLAC facility were cooled to -310F degrees. That level of cold is way beyond the capability of the coolest data centers today.
And magnetite may not even be the best choice for future transistors. The experiments establish a "speed limit" for switching in magnetite, but it's possible that other oxides will demonstrate better properties than magnetite, or be more commercially viable.
Nonetheless, the research shows that we don't have to be constrained by the limitations imposed by silicon insulators, and that new semiconductor material have the potential to deliver big increases in computational throughput. For computer scientists looking at what might be possible beyond exascale systems, that is potentially a very big deal.
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