Researchers from Harvard and MITRE announce world's first programmable nanoprocessor

We've seen plenty of breakthroughs involving nanowires over the years, but none of those have involved an actual programmable processor -- until now, that is. That particular "world's first" was just announced by a team of researchers from Harvard University and the MITRE Corporation this week, and it's being described as nothing short of a "quantum jump forward in the complexity and function of circuits built from the bottom up." As for the processor itself, it consists of an array of nearly 500 germanium nanowires that have been criss-crossed with metal wires on a chip that's just 960 micrometers (or less than 1 millimeter) square. That becomes an actual processor when the researchers run a high voltage through the metal wires and switch the individual intersections off and on at will -- we're simplyfing things a bit, but you get the idea. What's more, the researchers note that the architecture is fully scalable, and promises to allow for the assembly of "much larger and ever more functional nanoprocessors." Head on past the break for the official press release.

[Thanks, Chris]

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Researchers at Harvard and MITRE produce world's first programmable nanoprocessor

Nanowire tiles can perform arithmetic and logical functions and are fully scalable

Cambridge, Mass. – February 9, 2011 – Engineers and scientists collaborating at Harvard University and the MITRE Corporation have developed and demonstrated the world's first programmable nanoprocessor.

The groundbreaking prototype computer system, described in a paper appearing today in the journal Nature, represents a significant step forward in the complexity of computer circuits that can be assembled from synthesized nanometer-scale components.

It also represents an advance because these ultra-tiny nanocircuits can be programmed electronically to perform a number of basic arithmetic and logical functions.

"This work represents a quantum jump forward in the complexity and function of circuits built from the bottom up, and thus demonstrates that this bottom-up paradigm, which is distinct from the way commercial circuits are built today, can yield nanoprocessors and other integrated systems of the future," says principal investigator Charles M. Lieber, who holds a joint appointment at Harvard's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Nanoprocessor composite image 2

The versatile, nanoscale circuits are assembled into tiny tile-like nanoprocessors from sets of precisely engineered and fabricated germanium-silicon wires with functional oxide shells, having a total diameter of only 30 nanometers. Shown here are atomic force (left) and optical microscopy (center) images of a programmable nanowire nanoprocessor, and a corresponding schematic (right) of the nanowire circuit architecture. Image courtesy of Charles M. Lieber.

The work was enabled by advances in the design and synthesis of nanowire building blocks. These nanowire components now demonstrate the reproducibility needed to build functional electronic circuits, and also do so at a size and material complexity difficult to achieve by traditional top-down approaches.

Moreover, the tiled architecture is fully scalable, allowing the assembly of much larger and ever more functional nanoprocessors.

"For the past 10 to 15 years, researchers working with nanowires, carbon nanotubes, and other nanostructures have struggled to build all but the most basic circuits, in large part due to variations in properties of individual nanostructures," says Lieber, the Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry. "We have shown that this limitation can now be overcome and are excited about prospects of exploiting the bottom-up paradigm of biology in building future electronics."

An additional feature of the advance is that the circuits in the nanoprocessor operate using very little power, even allowing for their miniscule size, because their component nanowires contain transistor switches that are "nonvolatile."

This means that unlike transistors in conventional microcomputer circuits, once the nanowire transistors are programmed, they do not require any additional expenditure of electrical power for maintaining memory.

"Because of their very small size and very low power requirements, these new nanoprocessor circuits are building blocks that can control and enable an entirely new class of much smaller, lighter weight electronic sensors and consumer electronics," says co-author Shamik Das, the lead engineer in MITRE's Nanosystems Group.

"This new nanoprocessor represents a major milestone toward realizing the vision of a nanocomputer that was first articulated more than 50 years ago by physicist Richard Feynman," says James Ellenbogen, a chief scientist at MITRE.

Co-authors on the paper included four members of Lieber's lab at Harvard: Hao Yan (Ph.D. '10), SungWoo Nam (Ph.D. '10), Yongjie Hu (Ph.D. '10), and doctoral candidate Hwan Sung Choe, as well as collaborators at MITRE.


The research team at MITRE comprised Das, Ellenbogen, and nanotechnology laboratory director Jim Klemic. The MITRE Corporation is a not-for-profit company that provides systems engineering, research and development, and information technology support to the government. MITRE's principal locations are in Bedford, Mass., and McLean, Va.

The research was supported by a Department of Defense National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship, the NanoEnabled Technology Initiative, and the MITRE Innovation Program.