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Using Heat to Power Computers

Posted April 20, 2017

Ever since the invention of computers, researchers and engineers have been trying to figure out how to manage the heat they give out in order to prevent malfunction and unexpected shut down.

Why try to reduce the output of heat if it can be utilised as a source of energy?A research duo from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had developed a “thermal diode” that can withstand temperatures of up to 330 degrees Celsius. Image courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Rather than working on advanced cooling technology or attempting to reduce the output of heat in the first place, two University of Nebraska-Lincoln engineers had flipped the problem upside-down and came up with a new technique to put all of that unwanted thermal energy to good use. The team looked into developing thermal memory and logic devices that use heat instead of electricity to perform computations.

“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,” said one of the researchers Sidy Ndao. “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.”

In a paper, published recently in the journal Scientific Reports, Ndao and colleague Mahmoud Elzouka describe their nano-thermo-mechanical device, called a thermal diode, that is capable of operating in temperatures close to 330 degrees Celsius (or 630 degrees Fahrenheit).

The ultimate goal is to make the device – which Ndao calls a “thermal computer” – resistant to more than twice the heat (i.e., 700 degrees Celsius or 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit), thereby opening the door to many different applications.

According to the authors, their invention “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.”

It could also be employed in efforts to conserve energy – as much as 60% of energy generated in the United States goes up in the air as heat, which could, at least potentially, be used to power the the new device

The logical next step will be to increase efficiency and demonstrate the capacity of the device to carry out computations and run a logic system experimentally.

Reasonable or not, however, Ndao dreams even bigger: “We want to to create the world’s first thermal computer,” he said. “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 utilization.”


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