Penn State researching ways to improve computer speed, efficiency

Remember when each new crop of computers was ever so much faster than the previous models? Well, those good-old days ended about five years ago when the accelerating rate of computing speeds crashed into the impenetrable wall of fundamental physics. The problem, according to Penn State Professor of Physics Nitin Samarth, involves electricity -- specifically, the way computer components called transistors use electricity to compute. The solution he is working on is to develop new materials for radically new and super-fast kinds of transistors that rely on magnetism, instead of on the flow of electrons. This radically new way of computing is called "spintronics."

Samarth explained that today's technology for making computer processors run faster and faster involves shrinking the size of transistors so they can be packed together tighter and tighter onto a computer chip.

"The very fundamental limitation that stops computer manufacturers from making these chips faster is that the transistors are reaching the density at which the heat they generate cannot dissipate fast enough to prevent the computer from melting," Samarth said with a smile.

A transistor today is a small but essential computer component that switches the flow of electrons on and off. It is the flow of these electrons against the resistance of the surrounding materials that creates the troublesome heat. But computers do need transistors. Computers rely on the transistor's opposite options of "on" or "off" to carry out the type of mathematical logic that computers use in order to do what computers do. Computer logic uses just ones and zeros, which is how a computer interprets the on or off states of electron flow in a transistor.

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