Researchers have designed a novel computing system made solely from carbon that might one day replace the silicon transistors that power today’s electronic devices. It is a spintronic device that could eventually operate as much as 1000 times faster than current processors.
“The concept brings together an assortment of existing nanoscale technologies and combines them in a new way,” said Dr. Joseph S. Friedman, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UT Dallas who conducted much of the research while he was a doctoral student at Northwestern University.
It exploits the magnetoresistance property of graphene. The device is like a standard potentiometer, with the difference being that instead of moving a needle to effect a change in resistance, you simply vary a magnetic field applied to it. Among other things, this allows for electrical control without electrical connectivity.
In addition to carrying a charge, electrons have another property called spin, which relates to their magnetic properties. In recent years, engineers have been investigating ways to exploit the spin characteristics of electrons to create a new class of transistors and devices called “spintronics.”
Friedman’s all-carbon, spintronic switch functions as a logic gate that relies on a basic tenet of electromagnetics: As an electric current moves through a wire, it creates a magnetic field that wraps around the wire. In addition, a magnetic field near a two-dimensional ribbon of carbon — called a graphene nanoribbon — affects the current flowing through the ribbon. In traditional, silicon-based computers, transistors cannot exploit this phenomenon. Instead, they are connected to one another by wires. The output from one transistor is connected by a wire to the input for the next transistor, and so on in a cascading fashion.
Proposed proof-of-concept experiment.
In Friedman’s spintronic circuit design, electrons moving through carbon nanotubes — essentially tiny wires composed of carbon — create a magnetic field that affects the flow of current in a nearby graphene nanoribbon, providing cascaded logic gates that are not physically connected.
Because the communication between each of the graphene nanoribbons takes place via an electromagnetic wave, instead of the physical movement of electrons, Friedman expects that communication will be much faster, with the potential for terahertz clock speeds. In addition, these carbon materials can be made smaller than silicon-based transistors, which are nearing their size limit due to silicon’s limited material properties.
The concept is still on the drawing board but the teams are working toward a prototype of the all-carbon, cascaded spintronic computing system will continue in the interdisciplinary NanoSpinCompute research laboratory, which he directs at UT Dallas.
Remarkable breakthroughs have established the functionality of graphene and carbon nanotube transistors as replacements to silicon in conventional computing structures, and numerous spintronic logic gates have been presented. However, an efficient cascaded logic structure that exploits electron spin has not yet been demonstrated. In this work, we introduce and analyse a cascaded spintronic computing system composed solely of low-dimensional carbon materials. We propose a spintronic switch based on the recent discovery of negative magnetoresistance in graphene nanoribbons, and demonstrate its feasibility through tight-binding calculations of the band structure. Covalently connected carbon nanotubes create magnetic fields through graphene nanoribbons, cascading logic gates through incoherent spintronic switching. The exceptional material properties of carbon materials permit Terahertz operation and two orders of magnitude decrease in power-delay product compared to cutting-edge microprocessors. We hope to inspire the fabrication of these cascaded logic circuits to stimulate a transformative generation of energy-efficient computing.