Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Superconducting circuits, simplified


New circuit design could unlock the power of experimental superconducting computer chips

Computer chips with superconducting circuits — circuits with zero electrical resistance — would be 50 to 100 times as energy-efficient as today's chips, an attractive trait given the increasing power consumption of the massive data centers that power the Internet's most popular sites.

Superconducting chips also promise greater processing power: Superconducting circuits that use so-called Josephson junctions have been clocked at 770 gigahertz, or 500 times the speed of the chip in the iPhone 6.

But Josephson-junction chips are big and hard to make; most problematic of all, they use such minute currents that the results of their computations are difficult to detect. For the most part, they've been relegated to a few custom-engineered signal-detection applications.

In the latest issue of the journal Nano Letters, MIT researchers present a new circuit design that could make simple superconducting devices much cheaper to manufacture. And while the circuits' speed probably wouldn't top that of today's chips, they could solve the problem of reading out the results of calculations performed with Josephson junctions.

The MIT researchers — Adam McCaughan, a graduate student in electrical engineering, and his advisor, professor of electrical engineering and computer science Karl Berggren — call their device the nanocryotron, after the cryotron, an experimental computing circuit developed in the 1950s by MIT professor Dudley Buck. The cryotron was briefly the object of a great deal of interest — and federal funding — as the possible basis for a new generation of computers, but it was eclipsed by the integrated circuit.

"The superconducting-electronics community has seen a lot of devices come and go, without any real-world application," McCaughan says. "But in our paper, we have already applied our device to applications that will be highly relevant to future work in superconducting computing and quantum communications."

Superconducting circuits are used in light detectors that can register the arrival of a single light particle, or photon; that's one of the applications in which the researchers tested the nanocryotron. McCaughan also wired together several of the circuits to produce a fundamental digital-arithmetic component called a half-adder.

Resistance is Futile

Superconductors have no electrical resistance, meaning that electrons can travel through them completely unimpeded. Even the best standard conductors — like the copper wires in phone lines or conventional computer chips — have some resistance; overcoming it requires operational voltages much higher than those that can induce current in a superconductor. Once electrons start moving through an ordinary conductor, they still collide occasionally with its atoms, releasing energy as heat.

Superconductors are ordinary materials cooled to extremely low temperatures, which damps the vibrations of their atoms, letting electrons zip past without collision. Berggren's lab focuses on superconducting circuits made from niobium nitride, which has the relatively high operating temperature of 16 Kelvin, or minus 257 degrees Celsius. That's achievable with liquid helium, which, in a superconducting chip, would probably circulate through a system of pipes inside an insulated housing, like Freon in a refrigerator.

A liquid-helium cooling system would of course increase the power consumption of a superconducting chip. But given that the starting point is about 1 percent of the energy required by a conventional chip, the savings could still be enormous. Moreover, superconducting computation would let data centers dispense with the cooling systems they currently use to keep their banks of servers from overheating.

Cheap superconducting circuits could also make it much more cost-effective to build single-photon detectors, an essential component of any information system that exploits the computational speedups promised by quantum computing.

Engineered to a T

The nanocryotron — or nTron — consists of a single layer of niobium nitride deposited on an insulator in a pattern that looks roughly like a capital "T." But where the base of the T joins the crossbar, it tapers to only about one-tenth its width. Electrons sailing unimpeded through the base of the T are suddenly crushed together, producing heat, which radiates out into the crossbar and destroys the niobium nitride's superconductivity.

A current applied to the base of the T can thus turn off a current flowing through the crossbar. That makes the circuit a switch, the basic component of a digital computer.

After the current in the base is turned off, the current in the crossbar will resume only after the junction cools back down. Since the superconductor is cooled by liquid helium, that doesn't take long. But the circuits are unlikely to top the 1 gigahertz typical of today's chips. Still, they could be useful for some lower-end applications where speed isn't as important as energy efficiency.

Their most promising application, however, could be in making calculations performed by Josephson junctions accessible to the outside world. Josephson junctions use tiny currents that until now have required sensitive lab equipment to detect. They're not strong enough to move data to a local memory chip, let alone to send a visual signal to a computer monitor.

In experiments, McCaughan demonstrated that currents even smaller than those found in Josephson-junction devices were adequate to switch the nTron from a conductive to a nonconductive state. And while the current in the base of the T can be small, the current passing through the crossbar could be much larger — large enough to carry information to other devices on a computer motherboard.


McCaughan and Berggren's research was funded by the National Science Foundation and by the Director of National Intelligence's Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.

Written by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office

Abby Abazorius | Eurek Alert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht What happens when we heat the atomic lattice of a magnet all of a sudden?
17.07.2018 | Forschungsverbund Berlin

nachricht Subaru Telescope helps pinpoint origin of ultra-high energy neutrino
16.07.2018 | National Institutes of Natural Sciences

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: First evidence on the source of extragalactic particles

For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.

To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...

Im Focus: Magnetic vortices: Two independent magnetic skyrmion phases discovered in a single material

For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.

Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...

Im Focus: Breaking the bond: To take part or not?

Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.

A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...

Im Focus: New 2D Spectroscopy Methods

Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.

"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....

Im Focus: Chemical reactions in the light of ultrashort X-ray pulses from free-electron lasers

Ultra-short, high-intensity X-ray flashes open the door to the foundations of chemical reactions. Free-electron lasers generate these kinds of pulses, but there is a catch: the pulses vary in duration and energy. An international research team has now presented a solution: Using a ring of 16 detectors and a circularly polarized laser beam, they can determine both factors with attosecond accuracy.

Free-electron lasers (FELs) generate extremely short and intense X-ray flashes. Researchers can use these flashes to resolve structures with diameters on the...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Leading experts in Diabetes, Metabolism and Biomedical Engineering discuss Precision Medicine

13.07.2018 | Event News

Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP: Fine Tuning for Surfaces

12.07.2018 | Event News

11th European Wood-based Panel Symposium 2018: Meeting point for the wood-based materials industry

03.07.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Microscopic trampoline may help create networks of quantum computers

17.07.2018 | Information Technology

In borophene, boundaries are no barrier

17.07.2018 | Materials Sciences

The role of Sodium for the Enhancement of Solar Cells

17.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>