Nano-computing potential at University of Alberta attracts Lockheed Martin

The future of computing just might be located on the fourth floor of the National Institute for Nanotechnology Building on the University of Alberta campus, in the headquarters of Quantum Silicon Inc, or QSi.

QSi is the commercialization vehicle for some 30 years of research by nano-science researcher and physics professor Dr. Robert Wolkow.

Dr. Wolkow’s expertise lies in his deep understanding of the atomic structure of silicon, uncovering fundamental scientific knowledge that can lead to new industrial products and processes at the nano-level.

Before delving into QSi’s potential to make faster, lighter and extremely efficient computers, QSi CEO Ken Gordonreviews the current technology used in the computer industry.

“The semi-conductor industry has been wildly successful because it has developed the technologies necessary to allow it to follow ‘Moore’s Law’,” says Gordon. “Every two years, the industry has been able to double the number of transistors on a given surface area of silicon, reducing the cost and increasing the speed of computing devices.”

That curve, using what’s known as CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor) has held true for 40 years.

But it is coming to an end. “Transistors use electrical current to do their calculations. For at least the last ten years, the power they use has not decreased with device size, so now they generate more heat than can be carried away by conventional cooling.

“The industry has had to adopt increasingly heroic measures – things like multi-core processors – to keep increasing the transistor count,” says Gordon. “But the speed of the processor in your computer hasn’t increased much, if at all, for the past several years.”

By way of practical impact, think of how your cell phone heats up when it’s in high use and the batteries are being drained.

Meanwhile, mega-computing requirements are needed more and more in everyday life.

A soldier today has to carry 15 kilograms worth of batteries to power his gear. The solution has to be better batteries … or better computers using far less power.

“The fact is the industry is within two to three generations away from the end of CMOS technology,” says Gordon. “There’re a number of options for what’s next. QSi is one of them.”

Working with science at the atomic level, QSi is developing logic devices that use an architecture known as “quantum dot cellular automata”.

Dr. Wolkow has discovered a ground-breaking way to control the state of individual electrons in collections of silicon atoms in such a way that they can be used to express “binary state” – the 1s and 0s used by conventional computers.

Dr. Wolkow’s atomic silicon quantum dot cells can be arranged to create the same series of on-and-off positions as is done today with transistors using CMOS technology. But these atomic scale devices use a fraction of the amount of physical space and about a thousand times less electricity.

“Quantum-dot cellular automata computing is not new,” says Gordon. “But it was impractical. The quantum dots that researchers previously used were only stable at temperatures just over absolute zero.  Bob’s single-atom silicon quantum dots can operate at room temperature. And, importantly, they’re made with silicon, which the industry understands. That means we have a revolutionary technology that provides the industry with a transitional path. Because of the silicon base, they can interface with CMOS devices.”

The new nano-technology is still far away from commercial viability. “The fundamental science is sound,” says Gordon, “but there are still some hard things to do.”

The technology, however, has interested American advanced technology giant Lockheed Martin. Through an agreement with the provincial government, Lockheed-Martin has picked QSi as one of three projects it is funding in.

“Lockheed Martin not only brings some money to the table,” says Gordon. “By working with them we gain important insight into the market – a deep understanding of what industry will want from this technology.”

As Dr. Wolkow’s laboratory work was funded and supported by both the University of Alberta and Canada’s National Research Council, TEC Edmonton’s Technology Management division worked closely with all the parties – the inventor, the university, the National Research Council and investors – so QSi could acquire Wolkow’s technology under a licensing agreement.

“Dr. Wolkow’s atomic-level computing technology is early in its commercialization path,” says TEC Edmonton Technology Management VP Jayant Kumar. “But it has huge potential. We’re excited to have played a role in this project.”

“We’re under no illusions,” says Gordon, a veteran entrepreneur with several high-tech startups under his belt. “We’re millions of dollars away from being found in a laptop or a cell phone.

“But being aligned with a company like Lockheed Martin is ideal. It knows how to mitigate risk. It gives us a portal into the market place.”