Clock speeds used to be the benchmark for how quickly are computer was perceived to be, with megahertz eventually running into gigahertz, before leveling off a few years ago as machines failed to cope with the increase in heat.
However a new discovery of phenomenon that appears to contradict some of the known laws of physics could mean that the race towards higher clock speeds could be on again in the future.
This is because researchers at MIT have been able to operate a semiconductive material at a significantly lower voltage than has been possible with silicon, and so reducing the overheating in a chip.
With current silicon chips electrons gather under the gate of a transistor which creates a channel through which a current can pass and turns the material into a conductor, with the power that a chip consumes and the heat it gives off equaling to approximately the square of the operating voltage according to the researchers.
So therefore if the voltage at which the gate operates can be lowered at all then there is going to be a lot less heat generated, and means clock speeds can be ramped up again.
The team at MIT, alongside members of the University of Augsburg, managed to do just that by combining lanthanum aluminate and strontium titanate, both of which are usually insulators and therefore unable to conduct any current.
However strange properties come into play – which the scientists themselves are not able to fully explain at this point – when the alternating layers of lanthanum oxide and aluminum oxide, which make up the lanthanum aluminate, are treated in a specific way.
As both layers have a tiny electric charge, one positive and one negative, an electric potential is created between the top and bottom of the material said the team, and predicted that if the total thickness of the lanthanum aluminate was increased it would move electrons to from the top of the material to the bottom to avoid a ‘polarization catastrophe’.
What this basically means is that when the combined with strontium titanate a bridge is formed between the two materials in the same way that when a transistor is turned it allows electrons to flow through, creating a current necessary for a computer chip to function.
And what is so remarkable about this ability is that the amount of energy required to build this link between the two materials is incredibly small, and can cause a large amount of energy to run between the channel created between the two materials.
Even more impressive is that this phenomenon, which the researchers are struggling to understand in relation to known laws of physics, works at room temperature.
The researchers readily admit that the method is by no means perfect yet, with the large amount of electricity flowing through the conductive channel moving at a slow rate at the moment, they appear confident that obstacles such as finding practical materials to use will be sidestepped once they understand more about the way that science works.
Of course changing the chip industry from silicon to an entirely new form of material is so drastic a change for the multibillion dollar industry that it is almost hard to comprehend, but as one of the researchers says “this mechanism exists, and once we know it exists, if we can understand what it is, we can try to engineer it.”