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Carbon nanotubes to make portable IBM Watson a reality

Posted: 14 Jul 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Stanford University  IBM Watson  carbon nanotube  3D chip  transistor 

According to H.S. Philip Wong, a researcher from Stanford University, carbon nanotubes have the potential to pack the computing power of an IBM Watson system into a smartphone. In a talk at Semicon West, he described a theoretical 3D chip stack interleaving next-generation memory and logic technologies made with carbon nanotubes. Privately, he recognised the material still has a number of challenges before it is ready for practical use.

Wong showed a "club sandwich" made from carbon nanotubes. It interleaved layers of resistive and magnetic RAM with logic layers made from 1D and 2D field effect transistors.

Club sandwich made from carbon nanotubes

"This design requires new, high-efficiency heat spreaders, the thermal aspect is critically important," he said.

The resulting design could provide a thousand-fold power reduction for the IBM system that consumed 175kW power to beat human contestants in the Jeopardy game show. That system packed 2,880 IBM Power 7 cores running at 3.5GHz delivering 80TFlops.

"All the content was loaded into Watson's DRAM, not hard drives, because so much energy is spent in moving data," said Wong.

Although a handheld Watson won't be coming to the retail store anytime soon, Wong did summarise recent progress with carbon nanotubes. For example, one study showed the material could deliver devices competitive with today's 28nm silicon parts.

Carbon nanotube FETs

"In the last five or six years, multiple academic and industrial research labs have grown very well aligned carbon nanotubes and used conventional lithography and fab techniques to build circuits with them," he said.

He noted two papers on the topic from the VLSI Symposium in June. He also described work on a carbon nanotube computer described in 2013 that ran two programs using an MIPS instruction set.

Wong noted three challenges ahead for the material. It is not suitable for the high-temperature doping processes used in today's chip fabs. Researchers still need to improve the purity of the material they grow. And, like all transistor materials, it faces challenges when contacts scale to increasingly small sizes.

Complete processor using CNFETs

- Rick Merritt
  EE Times

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