I have talked a lot in the past about the future of computing, and most of the industry is looking towards quantum computers as the future. However, there are a few players out there taking very different approaches to computing. Associate professor Mazhar Ali and his research group at TU Delft made new discoveries in electronics that could unlock a new way of making a classic computer more energy efficient.

Ali and his team made a discovery that surprised scientists when they discovered a method of creating a one-way superconductor without the use of strong magnetic fields. This is something that the scientific community thought was impossible, from the discovery of superconductors in 1911 until their recent discovery in April 2022. Their discovery involved the use of two-dimensional quantum materials and paves the way to use superconductors in place of today’s semiconductors to produce faster and more energy efficient computers. Ali said, “If the 20th century was the century of semiconductors, the 21st can become the century of the superconductor.”

Throughout the 20th century many scientists have puzzled over the nature of superconductivity, first discovered by Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911. Superconductors are like magic wires that allow current to pass through them with no resistance. Resistance can be thought of like water flowing through a straw – the bigger the straw, the faster the water flows; the smaller the straw, the slower the water flows. The smaller straw has a higher resistance. Most electronic circuits today use silver or gold for its low resistance, but when you compare the resistance of gold to the resistance of a superconductor, it is like comparing a drinking straw to the road culvert.

A semiconductor is a special type of wire which has a resistance that can be controlled and even limited to a certain direction. I like to think of a semiconductor as a funnel with an adjustable small opening. It is very easy to pour liquid in the big end of a funnel and have it flow out the small end, but difficult to do it the other way around. Before Ali’s group discovered one-way superconductors, it was thought to be impossible. Scientists picture superconductors like extremely large pipes. If you were to make a funnel where one end was hundreds of miles wide and the other was only one mile wide, and were filling the funnel with a garden hose, it would be easy to get the water from one end to the other no matter which direction you tried to go. This is a superconductor in a very simple model. The resistance is so low that it was thought impossible to restrict the flow in one direction. The fact that Ali’s group managed to create one-way superconductors is remarkable. The editorial staff at scientistsstudy.com compared the discovery to creating a special type of ice that lets you skate freely in one direction but makes it impossible to go the other. This discovery can lead to computers that operate 300-400 times faster than currently possible. The biggest obstacle to overcome is still keeping superconductors cold enough to operate; this is currently 77 degrees kelvin or -321 degrees Fahrenheit.

For more information on Ali’s discovery as well as an interview with the scientists involved in the project, see https://www.scientiststudy.com/2022/04/discovery-of-one-way-superconductor.html.

Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is an Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to shamilton@techshepherd.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.

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