Scientists may have found the answer to smaller, faster chips that could usher in the future of processors, and that answer could be the use of silicon-28 nanowires.
Although the technology was initially dismissed as not being very efficient, further research and tweaking has shown that the material may be able to conduct heat up to 150% more efficiently.
In advanced processors, as well as various other computer hardware (such as graphics cards), heat can be a real enemy. Components that heat up too much do not work optimally. Heat also contributes to wear and, in the worst case scenario, can be the catalyst for your PC parts to fail. As such, most manufacturers pay a lot of attention to thermals, but the more powerful our components get, the harder it is to keep them cool without making them hugely huge.
In CPUs, silicon is a natural thermal insulator, but as noted by Tom’s Hardware, it’s not an excellent conductor of heat. As microchips get smaller with each generation, but are still filled with billions of transistors, the use of silicon becomes trickier.
To combat this problem, scientists continue to research various technologies that can make chips more efficient without having to compromise on size and thermals. According to a paper published by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, scientists may have found the key to better thermal conductivity in processors – by using purified silicon-28 (Si-28).
Natural silicon can be broken down into three isotopes: silicon-28, silicon-29 and silicon-30. The first of the three, Si-28, makes up about 92% of all natural silicon and is often chosen as the best conductor of heat when purified. After being purified, its heat conduction abilities increase by about 10%. While a 10% gain isn’t too shabby, it wasn’t considered worthwhile until now, when the scientists involved in this project took a closer look at silicon-28.
At first glance, nothing has changed — researchers were able to confirm that purified Si-28 provided only a 10% improvement over natural silicon. However, because they narrowed it down to using 90nm nanowires, which is about a thousand times larger than a human hair, the results were exponentially better. The use of 90 nm Si-28 nanowires showed a 150% improvement in thermal conductance, far exceeding scientists’ expectations.
“We expected to see only an additional benefit – something like 20% – of using an isotopically pure material for thermal conduction of the nanowires,” said Junqiao Wu, one of the scientists involved in the project. Imagine the surprise when the profit turned out to be as high as 150% instead of the 20% they were aiming for.
There’s a long technical explanation behind why this was the case, but to put it in simpler terms, the new material was able to reduce two mechanisms that previously blocked some of the thermal conductivity provided by Si-28. Be sure to dive deeper into the article at the original source if you want to know exactly how it works.
For the rest of us who are end users rather than scientists, what do these new, vastly improved heat-conducting silicon nanowires mean? It could be the next step on the endless path to smaller, yet denser chips. If thermals can be so much improved, it could allow future chipmakers to achieve new levels of performance without having to worry so much about their hardware temperatures.
Although scientists want to continue their research on Si-28 nanowires, focusing on controlling thermal conduction, it is not so easy to do. As it stands, there is a lack of purified silicon-28 available for testing. If more material can be obtained and further research proves fruitful, it is not at all unlikely that this technology will find its way into future chips.