No-boot compute

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Author: John Monczunski

You know that annoying 1- or 2-minute delay after you turn on your computer, when the machine just stares blankly back at you, making those popcorn popping noises and occasionally flashing a message like “running startup scripts”? That ritual soon may be a thing of the past. The age of instant-on computing could be just a click or two away.

Recently, Notre Dame researchers demonstrated the feasibility of a revolutionary computer technology that uses incredibly tiny magnets to do the computing and information storage.

Professor Wolfgang Porod, the director of Notre Dame’s Center for Nano Science and Technology, says nanomagnetic logic (NML) technology has the potential to make computers that are more efficient, run cooler on less power, and — best of all — don’t need that annoying boot process.

The system employs tiny nanomagnetic “islands,” each made up of many electrons positioned in an array. Flipping the pole of one nanomagnet induces a similar flip in an adjacent magnet, setting up a switch that transfers information down the line. The switching process can represent the binary ones and zeroes that are the backbone of all computing operations.

Since the nanomagnets are outrageously small, only a few 100 nanometers in size, incredibly powerful computers are possible. Just to give some sense of the size of the nanomagnets, a human hair is about 75,000 nanometers in diameter.

Unlike conventional transistor technology, which wastes power because transistors require electric current just to remain in a standby mode, NML requires no such standby electric current. Also, transistor-based circuits lose information once the current stops, hence the need to boot up every time the computer is turned on.

Notre Dame’s Center for Nano Science and Technology recently received a $9.9 million contract from DARPA, the Department of Defense’s research and development office, to investigate the system. Cooperating with Notre Dame on the project are research teams from the University of California-Berkeley and the Technical University of Munich, as well as industry partners IBM and Grandis, a firm that specializes in cutting-edge computer memory technology.


John Monczunski is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at jmonczun@nd.edu.

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