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DARPA funds mechanical nanocomputer

Researchers want to bring back mechanical computers, with a twist.

Replica of the Difference Engine, the original mechanical computer, designed in the 19th century by Englishman Charles Babbage. Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

DARPA-funded researchers are racing to develop an energy-efficient, heat-resistant mechanical nanocomputer that could be used in everything from cars and toys to dishwashers and machine guns.

Mechanical computers depend on millions of microscopic moving parts instead of solid-state transistors and other components to push the electrons to perform calculations. Gates, pillars, levers, and pistons create the binary switches, which compute the ones and zeroes that drive modern computers, explains the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Because they are more rugged and can perform at much higher temperatures than conventional silicon chips, scientists say, nanomechanical chips will have a wide range of uses in "extreme environments such as space, car engines, battlefields, and children's toys." Another benefit: they require less power to operate, meaning they don't need the energy-sucking cooling systems required by conventional computers. (One estimate is that somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the total energy used in the United States goes to operate and cool computers.)

"Mechanical switches offer some unique advantages over solid-state electronic switches like transistors," Kanakasabapathi Subramanian, a researcher with GE Global Research in Niskayuna, N.Y., said in a recent interview with Computerworld. "One is the ability to minimize the heat that's generated within the system. Because you have a physical air gap, you minimize leakage currents that give you heat. When the switch is off, it's really off."

Although DARPA-funded companies and universities are demonstrating that mechanical nanodevices are able to operate in spaces as small as those occupied by silicon circuits, there are no guarantees of any market for them yet.

"We can compete with simple microcontrollers costing less than $1, the kind used in a dishwasher or, for DARPA's purposes, counting the bullets in your machine gun," Robert Blick, the professor who is leading the university's team told Computerworld.

Wasting no time, Blick and his colleagues are trying to make nanomechanical memory to pair with the new computers. Now there's a niche market--a mechanical memory. Sooner or later we'll all need one of those.