Will the NSA Finally Build Its Superconducting Spy Computer?

The U.S. government eyes cryogenically cooled circuitry for tomorrow’s exascale computers

12 min read
Microchip in an ice cube.
Photo-Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

Today, silicon microchips underlie every aspect of digital computing. But their dominance was never a foregone conclusion. Throughout the 1950s, electrical engineers and other researchers explored many alternatives to making digital computers.

One of them seized the imagination of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA): a superconducting supercomputer. Such a machine would take advantage of superconducting materials that, when chilled to nearly the temperature of deep space—just a few degrees above absolute zero—exhibit no electrical resistance whatsoever. This extraordinary property held the promise of computers that could crunch numbers and crack codes faster than transistor-based systems while consuming far less power.

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The James Webb Space Telescope was a Career-Defining Project for Janet Barth

NASA’s first female engineering chief was there from conception to first light

5 min read
portrait of older woman in light blue jacket against dark gray background Info for editor if needed:
Sue Brown

Janet Barth spent most of her career at the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md.—which put her in the middle of some of NASA’s most exciting projects of the past 40 years.

She joined the center as a co-op student and retired in 2014 as chief of its electrical engineering division. She had a hand in Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions, launching the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, and developing the James Webb Space Telescope.

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A Diamond "Blanket" Can Cool the Transistors Needed for 6G

Gallium nitride transistors have struggled to handle the thermal load of high-frequency electronics

4 min read
blue mountain of crystals with an inset of molecules on a pink background
Srabanti Chowdhury/Stanford

High-power radio-frequency electronics are a hot commodity, both figuratively and literally. The transistors needed to amplify 5G and future 6G signals are struggling to handle the thermal load, causing a bottleneck in development. Engineers in the United States and England have teamed up to demonstrate a promising solution—swaddling individual transistors in a blanket of thermally conductive diamond to keep them cool.

“Thermal issues are currently one of the biggest bottlenecks that are plaguing any kind of microelectronics,” says team lead Srabanti Chowdhury, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. “We asked ourselves ‘can we perform device cooling at the very material level without paying a penalty in electrical performance?’”

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