The computer as we know it depends on the trusty silicon chip, a vessel that can only handle a certain amount of information. More and more, the race to develop the new generation of supercomputers is focusing on the third dimension.
The problem with silicon chips is space: the more elements that can be squeezed onto each chip, the faster and more powerful the machines they run become. But stacking the chips on top of each-other makes wiring a fraught, near impossible business.
However, university chemistry researchers are launching a project that could complete a world-first and connect microchips in 3D. Instead of pre-fabricating wires and carefully placing them into position they plan to ‘grow’ the connections from one layer to another, rather like high-tech artificial ivy.
Declares researcher Richard Bushby: ‘We now have the molecular machinery to bring about a revolution in super-computing.’The research team has perfected a method of placing layers of unique conductive molecules between the computer chips. The molecules naturally form thin wiry strands, which researchers will use to bring the chips into electrical contact; thus creating the world’s first true 3D computer circuit. Molecules which ‘magically’ form themselves into wires may sound improbable, but such self-assembly happens all the time in nature. However, it is only recently that researchers in the SOMS (Self-Organizing Molecular Systems) Centre are beginning to design molecules that can copy it.The researchers are targeting a developmental system that will emulate the three-dimensional structure and function of the human retina and visual cortex. ‘The system we are aiming for will incorporate, for the first time, high image resolution, computer power and fault-tolerance in a small package’ said Professor Bushby.
‘The kind of molecular computing technologies currently being researched are likely to be limited to two dimensions and to be very error prone. Our project concentrates on one highly innovative way to harness the possibilities of the third dimension.’The University researchers are now just a few months into their three year project, and Prof Bushby emphasises that their work is still at the futuristic stage. It will be around a decade before the 3D chips find their way onto the market.