The pull of pistons

Engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are developing a nanomechanical computer, a device based on microscopic moving parts instead of electronic components.

In the new computer, moving parts, such as gates, pillars, levers and pistons, would replace components such as transistors to create the switches, logic gates and memory units.

In conventional computers, electrons travel in circuits to perform the calculations that drive the functions of computer chips. A nanomechanical computer would still channel electrons into working circuits, but they would be controlled through the push and pull of millions of microscopic parts instead of solid-state electronic components.

According to Robert Blick, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Wisconsin, the new device would not compete with conventional electronic devices, but it would have key advantages in comparison. For example, the nanomechanical chips would be more durable than conventional silicon chips, so that they could be potentially used in extreme environments such as space and car engines. They would also require less power to operate, which would extend the battery life of a laptop computer, and be able to perform at higher temperatures, of up to 500 degrees Celsius.

The engineers have already made a working silicon model of the mechanical transistor, and are now trying to integrate other components into a working circuit.

‘We’ve tested these single devices and we’ve shown that a single element works,’ said Blick. ‘The next step is to demonstrate memory. We’re starting with the basics of information engineering.’

Blick said that the nanomechanical computer’s components would probably be made of materials other than silicon, such as ultra-hard diamond film, which can be chemically treated and used in the mass-production of integrated circuits.

The product is expected to be available in four years.