Magic Rocks

After a "breakthrough" in nanocrystal research, what's next?

2 min read

This week comes news of a breakthrough in nanocrystal research.  Scientists at the United State's Energy Argonne National Laboratory and the Carnegie Institution of Washington report finally being able to watch nanocrystals grow into form. "We have not been able to see how different conditions affect the particles," said Wenge Yang of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory, "much less understand how we can tweak the conditions to get a desired effect."

"Nanocrystal growth is the foundation of nanotechnology," said lead researcher Yugang Sun, "Understanding it will allow scientists to more precisely tailor new and fascinating nanoparticle properties."  As the so-called "foundation of nanotechnology," nanocrystals have fascinating prospects, as I learned from an engineer working in the field in Princeton.  Nanocrystals are in your socks, your Armani suit.  They're making his way into your cosmetics, your credit cards, your smart car.   And if you have lung cancer, he could be inside her chest too.

Entrepreneurial physicists are making and selling nanocrystals: programmable particles that are infiltrating our everyday lives.   Once a security measure of the Department of Treasury, nanocrystals are now going wide and transforming our lives. Grown from patent-protected mixtures of rare-earth elements – with names like Ytturbium, Prometheum, and Neodymium – these crystals measure as small as one nanometer.  Together they create something extraordinary, light.  Each mixture of elements produces a unique optical signature that can be detected with an infrared sensor.  With infinite combinations possible, there are countless types of light that can be produced – different colors, sizes, wavelengths.  And this is where the burgeoning applications come in. 

At first, nanocrystals were used to fight counterfeiters  The Department of Treasury puts nanocrystals in cash for added security.  If you hold a $20 bill up to an infrared sensor, you’ll see faint streaks of blue and green light – impossible to duplicate. A major credit card company will be putting the crystals into credit cards next year.  Lycra puts nanocrystals in its clothing to detect knockoffs.  If you hold a sensor up to your socks right now, you’ll see the crystals glow.

But the magic rocks aren’t just for security anymore.  They can be used  to improve the efficiency of solar cells.  Researchers are using nanocrystals to illuminate and track lung cancer cells in patients (a key development, because tumors can now be tracked without cutting open a patient’s chest).  Cosmetics companies could create nanocrystal infused makeup that creates a pinkish glow when exposed to sunlight.  Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute developed an auto-guiding car that senses and follows a trail of nanocrystals on a white line on the road. 

Is this the dawn of the Rare Earth age?

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3 Ways 3D Chip Tech Is Upending Computing

AMD, Graphcore, and Intel show why the industry’s leading edge is going vertical

6 min read
AMD 3D V-Cache

A crop of high-performance processors is showing that the new direction for continuing Moore’s Law is all about up. Each generation of processor needs to perform better than the last, and, at its most basic, that means integrating more logic onto the silicon. But there are two problems: One is that our ability to shrink transistors and the logic and memory blocks they make up is slowing down. The other is that chips have reached their size limits. Photolithography tools can pattern only an area of about 850 square millimeters, which is about the size of a top-of-the-line Nvidia GPU.

For a few years now, developers of systems-on-chips have begun to break up their ever-larger designs into smaller chiplets and link them together inside the same package to effectively increase the silicon area, among other advantages. In CPUs, these links have mostly been so-called 2.5D, where the chiplets are set beside each other and connected using short, dense interconnects. Momentum for this type of integration will likely only grow now that most of the major manufacturers have agreed on a 2.5D chiplet-to-chiplet communications standard.

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