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Could The Computing Industry Be On The Verge Of A Materials Breakthrough?

Situated in a massive server room somewhere in Guangzhou, China; the world's fastest supercomputer runs simulation after simulation, analyzing millions upon trillions of bits of data. Known as Tianhe-2 (or, roughly translated, Skylake-2), it can run as many calculations per second as there are stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. It boasts nearly double the raw processing power of the American-based Titan; its nearest contender on the TOP500 list.

The tech that's gone into this supercomputer is, without a doubt, top-of-the-line: the best money can buy. At least...it is for the time being. It might not be long before the sort of power boasted by Tianhe-2 seems quaint and low-key in the world of high performance computing. See, there's recently been a breakthrough at the US Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory -one that might well render the majority of current computing hardware obsolete. 

According to a paper recently published in the journal Nature Materials, researchers at the university observed electrical switching (when a material is forced to switch from a non-conductive state to a conductive one) in Magnetite, a commonly occurring natural magnetic oxide. This specific breed of conductivity - the ability to switch between a state of "on" and "off" - forms the basis of the transistor, which itself is the building block of the circuit. 

Currently, Silicon is top dog in the world of transistors, but that could change. Reportedly, Magnetite can go through the electrical switching process in a trillionth of a second. That's several thousand times faster than the silicon transistors currently on the market. Unfortunately, there's one small catch that renders Magnetite - at least, in its current form - a less-than-worthy competitor: it needs to be chilled to negative one hundred ninety degrees Celsius (or negative three hundred ten Fahrenheit) in order to spur the process into motion. Since that's not exactly viable in a consumer environment - let alone a professional one - Magnetite's probably out as a competitor (for now). 

That isn't to say we aren't still going to see Silicon on the way out in the near future.  There's another, slightly more fascinating breakthrough which enabled this discovery. See, Silicon's held the position of honor in computing for so long because scientists simply didn't have instruments precise enough to measure any of its potentially-faster competitors. Now, however, they've got a new laser which can emit X-ray pulses lasting a quadrillionth of a second, coupled with state-of-the-art measuring equipment. What this effectively means is they can detect transistor capabilities in materials that were previously thought to be completely incapable of switching. 

The team hopes to continue their experiments on several other materials. Soon, explained principal investigator Herman Dürr, they hope to find a material that has capabilities near to those of Magnetite but can operate at room temperature. Vanadium dioxide is one possibility, but there's nothing definite quite yet.  Once they've found a material with the right stuff, the next step is to work out a means of inducing the switch without requiring the use of a laser. It'll be a long, arduous process, but Dürr and his team aren't the least bit discouraged. 

"All we have to compare this process to is history," Dürr explained. "It took many decades from the first demonstration of a semiconductor transistor to the technological dominance this device has nowadays. And of course this dominance is the problem in finding an alternative. We need to generate a real winner if we want to transcend semiconductors. It's difficult to say when this might happen, but I'm confident we're moving in the right direction."