To date, nanotechnology has generated lots of excitement in the scientific community, but it hasn’t exactly brought about transformative changes in the life of the average person. In an effort turn that corner, UC Berkeley recently established the Center for Energy Efficient Electronics Science (E3S), where researchers will work to develop a new generation of nanotechnology-based computer chips that require so little energy that they may never need to be plugged in or recharged. The applications of this research go far beyond improving your laptop’s battery life (important as that might be) and into the realm of making entirely new technologies viable, like biosensors and ubiquitous wireless networks. E3S is led by EECS professor Eli Yablonovitch, whose long list of honors includes his very own Wikipedia entry.
As a graduate student whose research will be part of the center’s efforts, I’m cautiously optimistic that E3S will be successful in achieving its ambitious goals. The cautious part of me knows that the silicon-based computer chips that E3S seeks to replace are an exceedingly tough act to follow, almost discouragingly so. Even in the arena of energy efficiency, which is considered one of the weaknesses of conventional microprocessors, many seemingly promising designs need to be tossed from consideration because they offer little potential for improvement. On the other hand, by focusing on nanotechnology-enabled devices, E3S taps into a wide range of possibilities that has yet to be exhaustively explored. Nanoscience remains a sort of Wild West of ideas that regularly stumbles upon game-changing breakthroughs – like the discovery of graphene a few years ago – and gives plenty of reason to believe that a big commercial breakthrough lies somewhere in the near future.
But what if there is no “big bang” for nanotechnology-enabled computer applications forthcoming in the next few years? What results can we realistically expect to see out of the new center? For me personally, this question is critically important, because the last thing I want to do is spend five, six or (gulp!) seven years of my life toiling away on a PhD project that is ultimately irrelevant. Fortunately, though, I’m confident that this will not be the case. For one, the diversified approach E3S is taking towards its goals should help to identify winners and losers – as well as those technologies best suited for specialty applications – from among competing alternatives. E3S is subdivided into four areas, nanoelectronics, nanomechanics, nanomagnetics, and nanophotonics, and part of its funding will be used for collaborations with institutions outside of UC Berkeley. I anticipate that this direct exchange of ideas across disciplines and schools will encourage researchers to set measurable goals, weed out hype, and focus on the specific strengths, weaknesses, and future needs of the various technological approaches.
Hold on…“nano” without hype? That doesn’t sound right. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned over the next few years to see if it comes true. For now, check out the E3S press release for more info.