Researchers in Japan have developed a new type of superconductor microprocessor that uses far less energy than today’s microprocessors. That’s good news for you and for the planet.
Our use of computers and smartphones has grown tremendously in recent years. It’s hard to even imagine what life would be like nowadays without these devices (which are used not just for communication and enjoyment, but also have important economic roles).
But this has come at a cost. It’s not just the materials we use to create these devices, but also the electricity that these devices use. This figure has grown more and more, up to the point where data centers are being built near lakes and rivers to help cool them down.
Around 10% of the global use of electricity goes to electronic communications, researchers say, and that figure is only expected to grow.
“The digital communications infrastructure that supports the Information Age that we live in today currently uses approximately 10% of the global electricity. Studies suggest that in the worst-case scenario, if there is no fundamental change in the underlying technology of our communications infrastructure such as the computing hardware in large data centers or the electronics that drive the communication networks, we may see its electricity usage rise to over 50% of the global electricity by 2030,” says Christopher Ayala, an associate professor at Yokohama National University, and lead author of the study.
To tackle this issue, a team of researchers set out to design an extremely efficient structure with the dazzling name of adiabatic quantum-flux-parametron (AQFP). In thermodynamics, something is “adiabatic” if it occurs without transferring heat or mass to the surroundings. A quantum-flux-parametron is essentially a digital logic system based on superconductivity.
Armed with this efficient AQFP, the team used it as a building block for low-power high-performance microprocessors, demonstrating their new processor in a new paper. It’s 80 times more efficient and scalable, the team explains.
“These demonstrations show that AQFP logic is capable of both processing and memory operations and that we have a path toward practical adiabatic computing operating at high-clock rates while dissipating very little energy,” the study authors write.
The demonstration shows that the AQFP is capable of “all aspects of computing”, Ayala explains — namely data processing and data storage. It can be clocked up to 2.5 GHz, making it comparable to today’s existing technologies. “We even expect this to increase to 5-10 GHz as we make improvements in our design methodology and our experimental setup,” Ayala said.
But there’s a tiny catch: superconductors need freezing cold temperatures to operate. This means that the chips would, by default, need more power for cooling. As it turns out, even when you factor in this extra power, the devices are still more efficient.
“The AQFP is a superconductor electronic device, which means that we need additional power to cool our chips from room temperature down to 4.2 Kelvin to allow the AQFPs to go into the superconducting state. But even when taking this cooling overhead into account, the AQFP is still about 80 times more energy-efficient when compared to the state-of-the-art semiconductor electronic devices found in high-performance computer chips available today.”
Of course, there are still major challenges. For instance, price remains a big issue, and may very well be the ultimate constraint that dictates whether the technology will catch on or not. For now, researchers are working on bringing the technology from a working prototype to a more scalable and faster design, something that can compete with or even surpass existing technology.
“We are now working towards making improvements in the technology, including the development of more compact AQFP devices, increasing the operation speed, and increasing the energy-efficiency even further through reversible computation,” Ayala said. “We are also scaling our design approach so that we can fit as many devices as possible in a single chip and operate all of them reliably at high clock frequencies.”
The study has been published in IEEE Explore.