14-01-2021 | | By Sam Brown
Recently, researchers have developed a 4-bit super-conducting microprocessor that uses significantly less energy than typical microprocessors. What are superconductors, what can this microprocessor do, and how can such microprocessors be useful in the future?
Researchers from the Yokohama National University in Japan announced that they had created a 4-bit microprocessor from superconducting devices. In a report that feels reminiscent of a time from more than half a century ago, the development of such a basic processor is critical for future computing due to its use of superconducting material, and the resultant energy consumption.
According to the research team, the device is 80 times more energy-efficient than modern microprocessors, and if scaled up, could provide an energy-efficient future. Data processing is a major energy consumer globally, and energy used by such electronics is expected to rise to over 50% of global usage.
Since energy consumption is linked to climate change (from non-renewable energy sources), reducing this energy usage is critical for reducing CO2 emissions. Therefore, low-energy computational devices will become critical, and this 4-bit prototype microprocessor could provide the solution.
The supercomputing microprocessor may only be 4-bits in size, but it can perform common computational tasks. Furthermore, the device can operate at speeds of 2.5GHz, but this can be increased to 5 to 10GHz due to supercooled superconducting material. Adiabatic Quantum Flux Parametron (AQFP), allowed the researchers to create the needed logical structures, and the demonstration processor proves that low-energy, high-frequency processors can be designed.
While the processor does require advanced cooling (operating at 4.2 Kelvin), the researchers announced that even when taking this into account, the processor's energy is still 80 times more efficient than modern processors. With the prototype demonstrated, the team now plans to explore scaling the processor to greater sizes, increasing the speed, and decreasing the energy used to create a practical processor for future computational systems.
What are superconductors, and why are they important?
Simply applying cryogenic cooling to electronics does not allow for sudden increases in operational frequency and reduced energy consumption. While cooling electronics can allow them to operate at greater frequencies due to reduced resistance, cooling is mostly done to prevent thermal damage to components.
However, superconductors are special materials with a resistance of 0 ohms when their temperature falls below a critical value. It is important to note that the resistance is not approximately 0, IT IS 0 ohms. When electricity flows through a superconducting cable the current flow experience no resistance, allowing a superconducting cable to carry absurd amounts of current for their size.
Furthermore, if a loop of the superconducting cable has current induced into it, the current will continue to flow in a loop and never stop, thus creating a permanent electromagnetic field. In fact, such loops exist (for MRI machines), and they have figures that state how long a current will remain in the loop (it only decays because of the solder joint which is sometimes not a superconducting material).
Just like quantum computers, a superconducting processor will not be used for everyday computing in the average home. The need for extensive cooling systems means that the processors will either remain in laboratories for research or house in data centres to reduce cloud services' energy consumption a large scale.
If such processors were to be used in everyday computing applications, then a room-temperature superconductor would need to be discovered. That is still a fantasy in the scientific community. But, if such a material could be found, then superconducting microprocessors would be just one of many amazing devices to be developed; levitating trains would be extremely cheap, power could be distributed with virtually no energy loss, and motor systems could become incredibly powerful.