A team from University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that instead of trying to remove heat, which is typically necessary for high-performance computers, they could instead embrace it as an alternative energy source.
Sidy Ndao, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, said his research group’s development of a nano-thermal-mechanical device, or thermal diode, came after flipping around the question of how to better cool computers.
“If you think about it, whatever you do with electricity you should (also) be able to do with heat, because they are similar in many ways,” Ndao said. “In principle, they are both energy carriers. If you could control heat, you could use it to do computing and avoid the problem of overheating.”
The diode has already been documented working at temperatures approaching 330C and Ndao said he expects it could eventually work in heat as extreme as 700C.
“We are basically creating a thermal computer,” he said. “It could be used in space exploration, for exploring the core of the Earth, for oil drilling, (for) many applications. It could allow us to do calculations and process data in real time in places where we haven’t been able to do so before.”
By taking advantage of an energy source that has long been overlooked, Ndao said, the thermal diode could also help limit the amount of energy that gets wasted.
“It is said now that nearly 60 per cent of the energy produced for consumption in the United States is wasted in heat.”
“If you could harness this heat and use it for energy in these devices, you could obviously cut down on waste and the cost of energy.”
The next step is making the device more efficient and making a physical computer that could work in the highest of temperatures.
“If we can achieve high efficiency, show that we can do computations and run a logic system experimentally, then we can have a proof-of-concept,” said fellow research student Mahmoud Elzouka. “(That) is when we can think about the future.”
Ndao said he ultimately wants to create the world’s first thermal computer.
“Hopefully one day, it will be used to unlock the mysteries of outer space, explore and harvest our own planet’s deep-beneath-the-surface geology, and harness waste heat for more efficient energy utilisation,” he said.