Silicon-free hardware: materials and technologies that make it possible
Silicon is undoubtedly the basic element for making semiconductors, and all modern semiconductor technology is based on the use of silicon ingots to create new microcircuits, because this material has excellent properties for this task. This is why we cannot expect that using silicone-free electronics will even give us performance that comes close to this.
However, there are markets where the use of silicon-free chips promises to be revolutionary and a 180-degree turnaround, besides changing the way we interact every day. It is clear that processors based on silicon-free electronics have a large number of useful outputs. So let’s take a look at some examples that have been developed in recent years.
Nanomagnetic logic and carbon nanotubes
One of the keys to using materials other than silicon is to replace the use of electrical signals with alternative forms. One of them is nanomagnetic usage based logic nanomagnets where you can create processors not from silicon, but from other metals. Since no electrical current will be used, these processors operate at very low power consumption and will allow them to be deployed in places where dependence on energy for the processor will no longer be a problem.
Another solution is carbon nanotubes, which are based on the use of graphene molecules, which have the peculiarity of being used as a semiconductor material such as silicon, and therefore it is expected to be the material that promises the most when it comes to replacing silicon. At the moment, not a single commercial processor has been announced, which means for the mass market. However, graphene is seen as a material designed to address some of the inherent problems of silicon, and is seen as a material of the future and replacing it rather than an alternative.
Microcontrollers without plastic and silicone
In July 2021, ARM unveiled what they called PlasticARM , the first ever processor entirely made of plastic, and no, you can’t even imagine anything comparable even to an APU for budget smartphones, since this is a very primitive single-core microcontroller with a 32-bit core based on ISA ARMv7 , 128 bytes RAM and 456 bytes of ROM, which is the implementation of the Cortex M0. Of course, at a very modest speed 20 kHz so there is a huge margin for improvement, although we take into account the type of material used, namely that plastic is not exactly known as a conductive element of electricity.
What is its main advantage? They are very cheap to manufacture compared to conventional ICs. And what is the use of this? Well, many, for example, we can put it in a food container and combine it with small sensors that always warn about the state of food, and this is not the only usefulness, as it will also serve to store information such as its chemical composition. , its nutritional value or even its allergens. And it’s not just about food, but also about clothes. Have you thrown away the label of your favorite clothing and ruined it in the wash? Don’t worry about this as you can check the information again.
Another utility is for creating cards and / or cards in board games, where each element having one of these non-silicon microcontrollers can interact directly with other cards or even with a game board. We can even find merchandising and promotion elements with this type of integrated chips that interact with other devices. Imagine, for example, that you are buying a ready-to-bake product in which you only need to link a plastic microcontroller to the oven, and that this is directly configurable. As you can see, there are many utilities, and, of course, the vast majority have not yet been implemented.
Glass, optical interfaces and “silicone-free hardware”
We’re going to cheat here, as glass is partially made of silicon. When we talk about non-silicon processors or hardware, we mean those that are not made from purified silicon ingots, so glass falls into that category. We have an example IonQ a company that has been able to develop the main structural elements of processors from this material.
We have already said that today the big problem for equipment development is the cost of energy for moving data. A problem that doesn’t bother us at the home PC level, but is the specter of future developments in the most powerful supercomputers. How can you solve the problem of consumption and increase productivity? The use of optical interfaces, which use photons instead of electrons to transfer information.
The problem is that glass is much more expensive and less flexible than plastic. In the meantime, outside the interfaces for connecting video cards over a long distance or for construction and intermediaries there seems to be no demand in the mass market for high-speed silicon-free interfaces. Let’s not forget that using multi-chip processors in an intermediate device is not a living bread and it will therefore take time to see glass inserts, and of course in very limited edition products or for very specialized markets.