WSU professor of engineering Jose Delgado-Frias is working to advance the world of computer hardware by merging the fields of digital technology and nanoelectronics. Using carbon nanotubes, he hopes to improve the speed, size and reliability of the microprocessor, enabling it to push the power of electronics to levels previously thought impossible.
PULLMAN – Cars, computers, cell phones, DVDs, and life-saving medical technology — our modern world thrives on the power of electronics and integrated circuits. Today, the microprocessor — the workhorse behind most of these devices — is set to undergo an extreme makeover that promises to push the possibilities even further.
Josè Delgado-Frias, professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Centennial Boeing Chair in Computer Engineering, is working to merge the fields of digital technology and nanotechnology — the field of study which develops materials and devices smaller than 100 nanometers in size. 
Using carbon nanotubes and FinFETS—tiny electronic gates used in digital components — Delgado-Frias’ research stands to advance the world of electronics by producing computers and other digital devices with faster speed, reduced size, improved reliability, and wide-ranging adaptability.
CMOS vs. nanocircuits 
Contemporary integrated circuits and microprocessors are based almost entirely on a technology known as CMOS. The problem with CMOS is that it allows leakage of electrical current along system pathways, ultimately wasting most of their power. With nanoelectronics, that leakage can be blocked — resulting in a sharp drop in power consumption along with decreased heat production.
The technology can also make computers run faster. In theory, FinFETS could increase processor speed by a magnitude of 10. Carbon nanotube-based microprocessors are projected to run up to 1,000 times faster.
In addition, the circuits are very small. With carbon nanotubes measuring only 1/1000 the size of a human hair, gadgets could be scaled down to the size of bacteria. Such miniature machines could lead to unparalleled innovation in medicine as well as computing.
“Nanocircuits could be used for almost anything,” says Delgado-Frias. “They would replace the current CMOS technology, so anything that uses current digital electronics would be eligible. Tiny, powerful, energy-efficient computers could be developed and embedded in any systems that require small circuits — such as sensors and cell phones.”
It is also possible for nanoelectronics to be used as “smart dust” — minuscule digital circuits that could be injected into the bloodstream to deliver chemotherapy agents directly to tumors, or that could be sprinkled on the ground for environmental monitoring and other uses.
As microprocessors and integrated circuits become smaller and computationally more powerful, Delgado-Frias says they will also become more portable. As a result, the invention of new applications should flourish—ranging from multimedia applications to novel digital medical devices.
And the carbon nanotube batteries for these new devices could last up to 50 percent longer. Smaller, more comfortable pacemakers could be developed, for instance, offering the security of a much extended battery life.
Infinitely adaptable hardware
Delgado-Frias’ research is valuable not only to WSU (where he holds 27 patents) but to individuals and corporations across the state of Washington and the world.
One project of particular interest to the Seattle-based Boeing Company for aviation and space travel applications is the use of FinFETs and carbon nanotubes to develop a unique type of reconfigurable hardware.
Unlike conventional electronic hardware which has designated slots for processors, solids, multipliers, etc., this type of hardware can be adapted for any use.
“It is easily reconfigurable, so that if one part breaks, you can rearrange the other components and it will still work,” notes Delgado-Frias.
“In space—or when you are flying in an airplane—you cannot replace malfunctioning computer boards,” he says. “Our hardware can be configured in such a way that you avoid these problems.”
“Currently, on a space vessel, there are three copies of the same hardware; if one is damaged, the other two keep working. But with our new technology, the damaged circuit can recover and continue operating.”
“In deeper space, sometimes particles fall into circuits and temporarily damage computer chips. We are designing hardware that can tolerate or compensate for the damage, thereby allowing the chips to return to normal,” he explains.
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