Pictures are a worth a thousand words, the saying goes. That's especially true for IBM's (NYSE: IBM ) latest nanotechnology development. Check out this picture, which shows that the new computer circuit is less than a fifth of the width of a human hair.
Sure, it's an impressive demonstration, but you don't have to worry about going out in the rain with your computer-enhanced hair uncovered quite yet. The chip has only 12 transistors, so it's not about to rival the processing power of today's state-of-the-art billion-plus transistor circuits anytime soon. In fact, the circuit in the picture isn't even designed to be used in a computer chip: It's a ring oscillator, used to test transistors.
What makes the development so impressive, however, is that the 12 transistors are laid along the length of a carbon nanotube. This suggests that carbon nanotubes -- because they can be incorporated into silicon circuits using existing fabrication techniques -- will soon be employed in hybrid computer circuit devices.
To that end, semiconductor manufacturers are already actively exploring how to take advantage of carbon nanotubes' unique thermal and conductive properties to make incremental improvements to existing chip designs.
Longer term, though, IBM researchers and others hope that carbon nanotubes will eventually serve as a replacement for silicon transistors when silicon finally runs up against the theoretical limits of its ability to process electrons.
When this occurs, I submit that things really will get hairy. These super-tiny, super-powerful, next-generation carbon nanotube-based chips will be able to go places that they have never gone before --like inside our walls, clothing, and possibly even our bodies. And that, in turn, is likely to raise the little hairs on the backs of the necks of civil libertarians, bioethicists, and maybe even average citizens, in genuine concern over where this next iteration of the computer revolution is truly headed.
Further follicle-sized Foolishness:
Take a break from the electron microscope and join other small-minded Fools on our Nanotechnology discussion board.
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Jack Uldrich is impressed with IBM's latest breakthrough, but remains more interested in how nanotechnology might cure his own hairlessness. He is the author of the new book, Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He owns shares of IBM. The Fool has a disclosure policy.