Silicon chips, like the one pictured here, could in future be made not from silicon, but from a new alloy material made by a UCC research group (Source: Wiki)
The silicon chip — the tiny synthetic “brain” inside smartphones, laptops and electronic devices — could eventually be replaced by a material made in Cork.The substance, a mixture of tin and germanium, should allow faster, less power-sapping electronic devices. In the short term it could be used to make “wearable” solar cells to power phones or tablets.
The innovation has been announced by Professor Justin Holmes, a scientific investigator at the Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research Centre and professor of nanochemistry at University College Cork.
The tin-germanium mixture has been used by Holmes and his team to make tiny electricity-conducting wires, called nanowires. These control the electrical flow in devices, as silicon does, but use less power.
Low-power electronics could mean that mobile phones need to be charged less often, Holmes said, and could open the way for solar-powered mobile phones.
“Improved power efficiency means increased battery life for mobile devices, which ultimately leads to lower greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “The charging of mobile electronic devices currently accounts for 15% of all household electricity consumption.”
This research has been funded jointly by Science Foundation Ireland, a government body that uses public money to support research, and IQE, a British company that produces materials for mobile phones and other electronic products.
The creation could challenge the dominance of silicon chips. Silicon, a component of sand, is a cheap and abundant material. Because of its ubiquity and its power to control electricity, it was used in the first chip made at the Texas Instruments lab in 1958.
As computers’ processing speeds have increased, manufacturers have packed more transistors onto every chip. Intel’s 4004 chip, made in 1971, had 2,300 transistors, while a chip the company makes now has 7.2bn.
The technical problem with having billions of transistors in a single silicon switch is that the amount of heat generated has shortened battery life and can lead to overheating.
This prompted scientists including Holmes to look at different materials that could be used in chips. IQE said it hopes the Irish-made material will make silicon chips faster and reduce their power consumption.
“The ability to increase the speed and number of devices on a chip by reducing size is coming to an end. Novel ideas such as nanowires will allow the microelectronics revolution to continue,” it said.
This article was first published by The Sunday Times (Irish edition) on 21/08/2016. Click here to view.
Battery technology has changed little since Alessandro Volta’s stacked battery of 1799, here being demonstrated above to Napoleon. But, a technological breakthrough may finally be on the way (Source: Jean Loup Charmet/ Science Photo Library)
We take batteries for granted, but it is hard to imagine a world without them. Think about it for a moment. Almost everything that requires power, makes use of battery power.
The list includes cars (electrical and fuel powered), children’s toys, bicycle lights, recording devices, hearing aids, and, of course, our beloved laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Batteries have, however, become a limiting technology, and for years have been acting like a brake on the development of ever faster, more powerful electronic devices and gadgets.
Whereas, the power of a microchip – the brain of our electronic devices – has doubled every two years or so, since the 1970s, battery power, upon which they rely, hasn’t kept pace.
While the microchip has been doubling its power relentlessly every couple of years, engineers have struggled to get an extra 30 per cent of power from batteries over the same time frame.
The remarkable thing is that until recently, the technology upon which batteries are based hadn’t changed much since the first working battery designed by Alessandro Volta in 1799.
Yet there are many new technologies in development which could provide the long sought breakthrough that would provide us – at last – with batteries that can provide power at a high enough level and long enough to suit our needs.
In 1791 Luigi Galvani noticed that an electrical circuit created with two different metals, when touched on two ends of the leg of a dead frog, would cause the frog’s leg to twitch.
The two metals were creating an electric current within the frog’s leg, causing its muscles to contract. This was a transfer of chemical energy into electrical energy – a primitive battery.
The first simple, working battery, as we would recognise it today, which became known as the Voltaic pile, was built by Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist in 1799.
Volta’s battery was not the first device created by humans which could produce electricity, as the famous ‘Baghdad Battery’ dates back to about 200 BC.
These batteries were discovered by an archaeologist called Wilhelm Konig, outside Baghdad in 1938. They were small jars, which held an iron rod contained in copper.
Tests on the batteries indicated that the jars had been filled with some kind of acidic substance like vinegar or wine, leading researchers to theorise that they were ancient batteries.
However, the Volta battery was the first to produce a steady, lasting electrical current.
Volta’s battery had two electrodes. An electrode, to explain, is something which exists to create a connection between an electric conductor and a non electrical conductor.
So, a lamp that is connected to a battery would be connected by an electrode, which would carry the electrical current from the battery, to the lamp, via safe, non conduction materials.
The electrodes in the Volta battery were circular disks of zinc metal and copper metal, separated by cardboard paper in between them, which was soaked in salty water.
An electrolyte is something either liquid, or molten, which is full of ions, or negatively charged atoms, which are the basic building blocks of electricity. Volta’s electrolyte was salty water.
Chemical reactions in the electrolyte led to a positive charge being created at the zinc electrode – the anode – and a negative charge created at the copper end – the cathode.
The electricity in battery flows from towards the positive cathode, because electricity by its nature is negatively charge, and in Volta’s battery this flow could not be reversed.
One problem with Volta’s battery was there was a buildup of hydrogen gas, a by-product of the chemical reactions,which formed a barrier between the electrolyte and the electrodes.
Thus, the effectiveness of the Volta battery diminished over time. Furthermore, when more acidic electrolytes came into use, batteries could often be dangerous to handle.
Another problem was that because the Volta battery was built in a stack, the weight of the stack would, after a certain height, begin to squeeze the brine out of the cardboard.
The 1926 Model T Ford, pictured here, was the first mass produced car to have an automatic starting key. This was possible by using a battery designed by Irish priest Fr Nicholas Callan in 1837 (Credit: automotivehistoryonline.com)
Fr Callan’s Battery
One of the key researchers in what scientific historians call ‘the electric century’ – the 19th century – when electricity was harnessed and made widely available – was an Irish priest.
Fr Nicholas Callan was a 19th century battery pioneer and Catholic priest, based at at what was then part of The Catholic University of Ireland (now called Maynooth University).
He built some of the most powerful batteries and magnets that had ever been built in his workshop at Maynooth, and he spent long hours there, immersed in his researchers.
Callan, unlike scientists today, did not publish his findings, but when he had mastered some aspect of knowledge, he simply moved on to the next topic that he was interested in.
This meant that he did not get credit for the extent of his contribution to the development of the battery, and to the widespread availability of electricity until relatively recent times.
One of his inventions, called the induction coil, was a quantum leap for battery technology when he invented it in 1837. It was the first immensely powerful battery ever invented.
Our modern cars can be started by a simple turn of a key, thanks to a battery designed by Irish priest in the 19th century, and put into a Model T Ford in 1926.
Up until the 1920s, cars had to be started by manually by turning a hand crank. This was physically demanding, and people that were not young and fit often couldn’t manage it.
Callan developed an induction coil in 1837, almost a century before, which provided a way to massively ramp up the electrical power available to a small Model T car battery.
The 1926 Model T Ford, was the first car that went into mass production with an electrical starting mechanism, and this meant anyone, regardless of age or health, could drive a car.
The technical trick that Callan uncovered was to repeatedly break the electrical circuit in a battery by dipping copper wires in liquid mercury cups.
Callan found that the more rapidly he could break the current, using his ‘repeater’, the more intense the flow of electricity produced would become.
He was a quiet intense man, who spent hours in his laboratory at what is now NUI Maynooth. HIs fellow clerics wondered at his interest in science, and regard his lab work as useless.
Around the same time Fr Callan was working, in the 1830s, a British scientist John Daniell, developed an improved version of Volta’s battery which was called the Daniell cell.
The so-called Daniell Cell was made up of two metal plates, one of copper and one of zinc, and two solutions, of copper sulfate and zinc sulfate, all in a simple glass jar.
Copper sulfate is denser than zinc sulfate so it sank to the bottom of the glass jar and surrounded a copper plate. The lighter zinc sulfate floated on top of the copper sulfate and it was surrounded by a zinc plate. The zinc plate was negative and the copper the positive.
This worked well for stationary applications, such as powering doorbells, and early telephones, but it didn’t work for mobile applications such as powering a flashlight. But, it worked.
The principles of what happens when you put a battery into your remote control or flashlight today, in September 2015, is similar to the early batteries, going back more than 200 years.
Basically, chemistry is being used to generate electricity, and move it from one part of the battery to the other, and then into the device where the electrical power is consumed.
In simplest terms, the chemical reactions in the anode, or negative end of the battery, creates electrons, which are the basic units of electricity.
These electrons are transferred in the electrolyte substance, which is liquid of some sort, often an acid, from the anode, to the positive end of the battery, the cathode, via a current.
At the cathode chemical reactions occur which essential absorb the electrons, and their energy, to produce electricity, which is transferred to a device running on battery power.
The battery will continue to produce electricity until one, or both, of the electrodes, run out of the substances which are needed to produce and absorb electricity respectively.
Modern batteries are still based on using chemistry to produce, absorb and transfer electricity. We have got better – somewhat – at manipulating the chemistry to make better batteries.
There are zinc-carbon batteries, alkaline batteries, lithium ion batteries and lead-acid batteries in common usage today.
The lead-acid battery, which is used in a typical car battery has electrodes made of lead oxide and metallic lead, while the electrolyte is a sulfuric acid solution.
These are dangerous to handle, and an environmental nightmare, but they produce enough electricity to get a car started in the morning, and that is what we all ultimately want.
The alkaline batteries, are the kinds of batteries we buy in shops, to put into children’s toys, for example. The cathode here is a manganese dioxide mixture, and the anode a zinc powder.
It gets its name, however, from its potassium hydroxide electrolyte, an alkaline substance..
Acids are often excellent electrolytes, because they strongly ionize in solution. They can produce a lot of ions when put into solution, whether they are positive or negative.
ither way, acids don’t form stable molecules when put in solution. The create ions, which are highly mobile in solution, and facilitate the conduction of electricity.
In the modern era it has become important to develop decent rechargeable batteries, such as mobile phone charges, which can be plugged in and recharged on the move.
However, rechargeable batteries have been around a long time. In fact they date back as far as 1859 when Gaston Plante, a French physicist invented the humble lead acid battery.
We know that lead acid batteries in our cars can run out, hence the jump leads we carry in the boot. The jump leads are used to re-charge the battery from another battery usually.
The difference between a rechargeable battery and a non-rechargeable one is that the chemical reactions producing electric current in a rechargeable battery are reversible.
As the world, a became increasingly mobile, it was vital to invent a powerful, rechargeable battery. Along came the lithium-ion battery in 1991 (by Sony and Asahi Kasei)
In this battery, charge could be reversed, and the products that were in the battery were not going to be used up rapidly, or diminished in power with multiple weekly charges.
The lithium-ion battery, which goes into so many of our devices, is one such rechargeable battery. These are high performance batteries, which often used lithium cobalt oxide as the cathode and carbon as its anode. These materials, lithium, and carbon, are also very light.
owever, lithium ion batteries still need an electrolyte, typically lithium salt, which is in solution. So, these high technology batteries are still limited by the need for a liquid solution.
There are many competing technologies working to develop the breakthrough that will move batteries on to the next stage.
There are solid state batteries, and solar batteries, and even batteries, which scientists have recently proposed, which could be based on thin air?
Solid state batteries will be made of solid electrodes and solid electrolytes. They can be easily miniaturised, and long shelf lives. They also are not prone to reduced performance due to temperature like liquid electrolytes, when exposed to near freezing or boiling conditions.
The technical problem with solid state batteries, however, is that it is proving difficult for engineers to get high electrical currents moving easily across solid to solid surfaces.
Solar batteries are another technology being explored, as the next big thing in batteries, and these are based on converting the energy in sunlight directly into electrical energy.
The materials used are those that change their electrical characteristics in response to sunlight. They work in a similar way to solar panels, but they need to be smaller of course.
Tesla Motors, from the US, meanwhile, are developing industrial scale batteries, which can be used to power the home, they say, or to store energy from renewable sources like wind.
In May Tesla and an Irish company Gaelectric announced they were going to work on a large utility scale battery power project in Ireland.
The plan is to demonstrate that Tesla batteries, can store energy from the sun and the wind, which there is plenty of in Ireland, and release in quantities sufficient for utilities to use.
Tesla also wants to enable business and homes to be able to store renewable energy from the Sun, and wind to manage their power needs, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
However, when it comes to our electronic devices, it seems that a workable solar battery, which is powerful and cheap, and reliable is still no-where in sight.
Solar powered batteries can be sluggish on start-up when they are cold, and they don’t have enough power, of the type that an iPhone requires, for example to do the job.
Their role maybe to have a solar battery on the iPhone as a back-up to use in an emergency when the battery is running low and there is no electrical socket in sight.
Future iPhones could run on hydrogen refuelled via the headphone socket. Intelligent Energy, a British firm behind the breakthrough, expects there’ll be a gas cartridge slot (Credit: iFixit)
Intelligent Energy says it made an iPhone 6 with a battery which creates electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen – that means air! – to last the phone for a week.
The bonus is that the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, produces only small amount of water and heat as waste products.
This announcement has been shrouded in secrecy as it correct this will be a massive breakthrough. The company said its fuel cell system was incorporated into the current iPhone 6 without any alteration to the size or shape of the device.
The only difference, compared to other handsets is that there are rear vents where a tiny amount of water vapour waste is allowed to escape.
Intelligent Energy, who are reportedly working closely with Apple, said they are considering what price to sell their cartridges at, so it’s not going to be part of the iPhone per se.
It’s likely the cartridge might sell for just the cost of a latte, company executives said, and even so, a 300 billion Sterling market per year could open up.
Click above to listen to discussion with Keelin Shanley on Today with Sean O’Rourke, broadcast on RTE Radio 1 on 27th August 2015
DNA-based computers have already been built and they look set to replace silicon computers in coming years (Source: http://www.news.discovery.com)
We love our electronics, or most of us do, and every year or two, when we go to buy a new phone, computer or laptop we all expect to buy a faster, more intelligent device.
The microchips inside our electronics are ‘the brain’ of the device. They are currently made up of silicon, an abundant material found in sand.
However, some time soon, perhaps very soon, silicon-based chips will no longer be able to provide devices with the extra speed and functionality that buyers demand.
The big question is, if electronic devices are not based on silicon, as they have been for decades now, what will they be based on?
It might come as a surprise to some to learn that DNA, the genetic material inside every human cell, is a leading contender to fill silicon’s shoes.
In a way, it makes perfect sense to use DNA for computers. DNA is brilliant at storing and processing information, and is made up of a simple, reliable code.
Yet the idea of using DNA in computers didn’t emerge until as late as 1994.
That was when Leonard Adleman, of the University of Southern California showed that DNA could solve a well-known mathematical problem.
The problem was a variation of what mathematicians call the ‘directed Hamilton Path problem. In English that translates to ‘the travelling salesman problem’.
In brief, the problem is to find the shortest route between a number of cities going through each city just once.
The problem gets more difficult the more cities are added to the problem. Adelman solved the problem,using , for seven cities in the US.
Thing is, it is not a hugely difficult problem, and a clever enough human using paper and pencil could probably work it out faster than Adelman’s DNA computer.
The importance of what Adelman did was to show that DNA could be used to solve computational problems – what we might call a proof of concept today.
He used synthesised DNA strands to represent each one of the seven cities and other strands were made for each of the possible flight paths between the cities.
He then performed a number of experimental techniques on the DNA strands to get the single answer that he wanted. Like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.
It was slow, but he showed it could be done.
The question now was, what else can we do with DNA?
Purified silicon, pictured here, is sourced primarily from sand and is an abundant element in the Earth’s crust (Source: Wikipedia)
The most important element is silicon, pictured here on the right,which is the material used to make the microchip; the brain of our phones, pads and laptops if you like.
The first silicon chip was made in 1968, and it became the material of choice for the emerging computer industry in the years and decades that followed.
It is an abundant material, found in sand, and in rocks like granite and quartzite, and this abundance means it is cheap, and easy to find, all over the world.
It is also asemiconductor, which means it conducts electricity, although badly. It is halfway between a conductor, such as metal, and an insulator, such as rubber.
It would be very hard to control electricity, in terms of switching transistors on and off, using a material that conducted electricity or block its flow entirely.
This semiconducting property makes it easier to control the flow of electricity in a silicon microchip, which is crucial to success of the microchip technology.
Aside from silicon, there are plastics, which make up a lot of the weight of many devices and laptops, in the body, circuit boards, wiring, insulation and fans.
These are plastics like polystyrene, a common one, are made up of carbon and hydrogen, two of the most common elements in nature.
There are metals, but usually light metals, such as aluminium, which is popular because it is light, and strong and has a sleek, modern appearance.
Aluminium comes from bauxite mining, and a lot of energy is spent in extracting the ore aluminium from the bauxite rock in big producer nations like Australia.
There is some steel for structural support and for things like screws, and copper is still used in wiring on circuit boards and to connect electrical parts.
The battery is key, of course, and typically it is a lithium-iron battery these days. These batteries also have cobalt, oxygen and carbon.
There are also small elements of rare materials, or rare earths such as gold or platinum, or neodymium, which is used for tiny magnets inside tiny motors.
electronic devices, including iPhones and other devices. This,has proved controversial as the process that extracts those rare earths from the ground is environmentally risky, some believe.
Minerals such as neodymium are used in magnets inside the iPhones to make speakers vibrate and create sound.
Europium is a material that creates a bright red colour on an iPhone screen and Cerium is used by workers to polish phones as the go along the assembly line.
The iPhone wouldn’t work without the various rare earths contained in it. Ninety per cent of the rare earths are mined in China, where environmental rules are slacker.
There is a human price to be paid – elsewhere – for our shiny, fast, new devices.
For example, a centre of rare earth mining is a place called Baotou, in Inner Mongolia. The town has dense smog, and a radioactive ‘tailings’ lake west of the city, where rare earth processors dump their waste, described as “an apocalyptic sight”.
Radioactive waste has seeped into the ground, plants won’t grow, animals are sick, and people report their teeth falling out, and their hair turning white.
The people that risk their lives mining for the rare materials that need to make make the electronics we love, usually live far away from Europe or North America.
China is a major centre for such mining, and Australia is significant too.
DNA is ‘clean’
When scientists built a computing running on DNA in Israel in 2003, it contained none of the silicon, metals or rare earths used in our devices today.
It could also perform 330 trillion operations per second, which was a staggering 100,000 times faster than silicon-based personal computers.
A DNA computer would be much ‘greener’ and more in keeping with our 21st century ideas of sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint.
DNA computers don’t need much energy to work. It is just a case of putting DNA molecules into the right chemical soup, and controlling what happens next.
If built correctly, and that is where the technical challenge likes, a DNA computer will sustain itself on less than one millionth of the energy used in silicon chip technology.
There have been a few important milestones since the pioneering work of Adelman in California opened the door to DNA computers back in 1994.
Between 2002 and 2004, scientists there produced a computer based on DNA and other biological materials, rather than silicon.
They came up with a DNA computer which was, they said, capable of diagnosing cancer activity inside a cell, and releasing an anti-cancer drug after diagnosis.
More recently in 2013, researcher stored a JPEG photo, the text of a set of Shakespearean sonnets and an audio file of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech using DNA.
This proved that DNA computers were very good at storing data, which is something that DNA has evolved to do over millions of years in the natural world.
DNA computers are on the way that will be far better at storing data than existing computers which use cumbersome magnetic tape or hard drive storage systems.
The reason is simple. DNA is a very dense, highly coiled molecule that can be packed tightly into a small space.
It lives in nature inside tiny cells. These cells are only visible under a microscope, yet the DNA from one cell would stretch to 2 metres long if uncoiled and pulled straight.
The information stored in DNA also can be stored safely for a long time. We know this because DNA from extinct creatures, like the Mammoth, has lasted 60,000 years or more when preserved in ice, in dark, cold and dry conditions.
One of the few advantages of our Irish weather is that it is makes it an attractive place for high technology companies to base their data store centres here.
It was a factor in the announcement by Google last week that it was to locate a second data centre in Dublin.
Many industry experts believe the days of the silicon chip, like this one, are numbered, and some believe DNA will replace it as the material of choice in our future devices (Source: http://www.tested.com)
A DNA computer chip – if we call it that- will have to be far more powerful than existing silicon chips to establish itself as a new technology.
This will be ‘disruptive’,and a lot of money is invested in manufacturing plants like Intel in Leixlip, which have been set up and fitted out to make silicon chips.
But, regardless of the level of investment, and Intel have invested something like $12.5 billion in their Leixlip plant since 1990, silicon’s days are numbered.
In 1965, Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, came up with a law governing the production of faster and faster computing speeds, which has proved accurate.
He said that the number of transistors on an ‘integrated circuit’ – the name given to chips before silicon became the material of choice – would double every two years.
This doubling has continued every two years since 1965, but engineers say that they are fast reaching the point where they have exhausted silicon transistor capacity.
The need for something to replace silicon is becoming urgent, and this is why a recent breakthrough in DNA computing in the UK is especially timely.
Scientists at the University of East Anglia have just announced they have found a watch to change the structure of DNA – twice – using a harmless common material.
The material is called EDTA and it is found in shampoo, soaps and toiletries to keep their colour, texture and fragrance intact.
The scientists used EDTA to change DNA to another structure, and the, after changing it, to change it back into its original structure again.
In silicon, the transistors switch between ‘on’ and ‘off’ states and this provides the means of controlling the way that the silicon chip works.
Similarly, this breakthrough has shown, for first time, that scientists can now also switch DNA between two ‘states’ or forms.
The Bumblebees are one of many insects that are crucial to the well-being of plants and the Irish countryside as they facilitate pollination. The bumblebee species pictured here is Bombus Muscorum (Credit, J. Breen & National Biodiversity Data Centre)
The human brain is a remarkable organ. It learns from and adapts to the environment, can repair itself and is capable of non-linear, sophisticated decision making. Researchers at NUIG want to mimic these abilities in a robotic brain.
Intensive farming has reduced the number of species in the Irish countryside in recent decades, including, worryingly, many insect species that facilitate plant pollination. The situation is better on organic farms, but is going organic the answer for Ireland?