The Rise of Carbon Nanotube Electronics
February 08, 2022
Demand for next-generation technology that is powerful, highly endurant, secure, and energy efficient is stronger than ever. Fortunately, after years of development and testing, carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are proving to deliver on all these key features and are on track to drive new innovations in a wide range of applications such as electronics, automotive, space, industrial, and many more.
From nonvolatile random access memory (NRAM) and sensors to transistors, interconnects and 3D layering techniques, CNTs have the potential to transform markets based on their inherent properties that give them their ‘super powers.”
- Secure – Cybersecurity is a top concern today in nearly every industry around the world. Attacks often happen as hackers shake up the electronics to cause shortages and other failures. However, CNTs are not susceptible to these types of attacks. As an example, when used in memory, CNTs can easily protect devices against a Rowhammer hardware attack, which occurs when a virus attacks a computer by repetitive activations of a row to intentionally disturb adjacent rows. While traditional DRAM has cell droop, CNT-based memory has no droop which eliminates any crosstalk interference. This in turn closes the door to one of the today’s most gaping security holes.
- Tiny Size – With one CNT being just 1/50,000th the diameter of a human hair, CNTs can be incorporated into even the smallest devices such as wearables and sensors. They can be also used in mainstream electronics and other devices to make room for more features, functionalities or higher performance.
- Highly-endurant – Known as the strongest material known, CNTs are 50 times stronger than steel and can withstand extremely harsh temperatures. Modern day electronics can’t withstand these types of conditions, making CNT technologies ideal for applications such as such automotive, space communications, and industrial applications where the electronics are exposed to extreme heat, cold, and other effects such as radiation and ultra-violet rays.
- Energy Efficient – Carbon nanotubes are extremely energy efficient due to their small size and the way they operate internally. In fact, in preliminary tests, memory based on CNTs has proven to deliver a 32 percent reduction in power consumption compared to traditional DRAM. This type of advancement paves the way for a more sustainable future in a wide range of industries, particularly power-hungry data centers.
From Lab…to Fab…to Reality
After decades of research spent on bringing carbon nanotube electronics into mainstream markets, one important development has been their ability to be successfully manufactured in CMOS fabs. In fact, there are a handful of fabs around the world today using CNTs on leading-edge CMOS fabrication lines (at limited capacities) with the same reliable tools and processes already used for silicon manufacturing.
There are two areas we expect to see CNTs emerge first: transistors and next-generation memory. As an example, recently a team of materials scientists successfully created a carbon nanotube transistor that’s 25,000 smaller than the width of a human hair. This is significant because the ability to develop smaller transistors has been stifled due to limitations in silicon as defined by Moore’s Law. Overcoming those limitations could propel us into the next several decades of new and exciting innovations. While silicon has taken us this far, carbon nanotubes are the future.
Similarly, Nantero also has been successful working with CNTs and has developed a next-generation memory called NRAM. This is also an important development because the race has been on to develop a new generation of memory to replace DRAM and flash as they approach their end of life. By using CNTs in memory, all the benefits described above shine through. These devices uniquely can provide hardware cybersecurity for data protection & reliability, high temperature tolerance for extreme operating environments, higher performance for more bandwidth & AI power, and sustainable low-power energy efficiency.
The Many Markets of CNTs
When you consider the inherent advantages of CNTs, it is no wonder they are being considered for a wide range of markets and applications. Below are some examples of where you can expect to see them in the next few years:
As electronics have become more pervasive in cars, dealing with harsh temperatures both from the engine and the outside environment have always been a key challenge. This is where CNTs offer significant benefits. As an example, CNT-based memory NRAM is rated for -55∞C to +125∞C, greatly simplifying system cooling and allowing more flexible placement in the vehicle. Data does not degrade under even the most extreme conditions.
Another area that makes CNTs so attractive in automobiles is the always-on feature and data security of CNTs. With the advent of autonomous vehicles, it is critical – and often life-saving – that the devices handling data in the vehicle never stop working. Even a nano-second stoppage or delay can be catastrophic. Furthermore, automobiles are potentially the next target for hackers to try to break into, and it is only a matter of time before they do. Hackers have gotten quite good at breaking into or disrupting silicon devices, but CNTs are a different story. Attempting to break into a CNT that is roughly the same strength as a diamond is like trying to break into Fort Knox.
Space Exploration and Communications - With programs such as SpaceX, space exploration is going to become a way of the future, as are the satellites that connect our global communications infrastructure. What many people do not realize, however, is that NASA has already recognized the benefits of CNTs when it sent carbon-based memory up in a space Shuttle Atlantis more than 15 years ago. They clearly recognized that modern day electronics would not be able to withstand harsh temperatures and bombardment of radiation. CNTs do not have these same limitations, making them an obvious choice for all onboard electronics in future space equipment.
Industrial Applications - Industrial applications such as factories, oil and gas, power plants and water treatment facilities require substantial amounts of data to be stored and analyzed continuously, and the conditions at some of these locations can be harsh. By leveraging CNT devices, these facilities can place devices where they need to be for more efficient operation. CNT devices also provide data analytics that can monitor equipment and predict and prevent downtimes. They also provide valuable data analytics that can significantly improve overall operations and result in substantial cost savings.
Electronics - In the trillion-dollar consumer electronics industry, consumers expect their devices to continually become more powerful, deliver new functionality with greater speed, and store more movies, pictures and music. The small size of carbon nanotubes allows more data to be crammed into tighter spaces, while also significantly consuming less power than traditional silicon devices. That can bring more storage and longer battery life to laptops and mobile devices – not to mention the security advantages highlighted above to protect data from hackers.
All Roads lead to CNTs
Silicon has been the heavy-weight champion for years in the electronics world and the innovation it has spurred is undeniable. However, it is time for a newer, more powerful champion to emerge, and carbon nanotubes are a natural choice given their inherent advantages of being more powerful, secure and endurable. Carbon nanotube-based electronics are the world’s next Super Hero, and we are up for the challenge.
Marquardt is a global executive who has run companies in the technology and healthcare sectors and who served as president of the global risk management company founded by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. He is a global advisor and corporate director who has chaired and served on boards of corporations based in Paris, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur. Following a lifelong commitment to fighting cancer after losing several loved ones to the disease, Marquardt currently serves as chairman of the American Cancer Society’s national board of directors. Marquardt was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, emigrated to the United States in 1991, a year and a half after witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall to attend college and graduate school, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2002. He joined Nantero as Global Strategy Advisor in August of 2021. President Biden appointed Marquardt to the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad in January of 2022. You can follow him on Twitter @MarquardtGlobal