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,
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
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."