Heat, not electricity, could power computers of the future

 The problem of cooling computers is one of the biggest in the world today. Data centres around the globe spend vast sums on keeping their equipment at the absolute optimum temperature, no matter the conditions outside.

But now a pair of engineers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have flipped that idea on its head, proposing heat as an alternative to electricity instead.

(Image credit: Karl Vogel)

“If you think about it, whatever you do with electricity you should (also) be able to do with heat, because they are similar in many ways,” said Sidy Ndao, co-author of a paper describing the idea published in Scientific Reports. 

“In principle, they are both energy carriers. If you could control heat, you could use it to do computing and avoid the problem of overheating.” 

Proof of Concept

 Ndao's lab has developed a nano-thermal-mechanical device - basically a thermal diode - which works at temperatures up to 330C. It's just a proof of concept, not super-efficient yet, but the team believes that it could be used to create a physical computer that can work in environments up to 700C.

“It could be used in space exploration, for exploring the core of the earth, for oil drilling, (for) many applications. It could allow us to do calculations and process data in real time in places where we haven’t been able to do so before,” said Ndao.

What's more, the thermal diode can help to limit the amount of energy that is wasted in computation. "If you could harness this heat and use it for energy in these devices, you could obviously cut down on waste and the cost of energy," he added. 

Future Plans

 There are several improvements that the team wants to make to the device before thinking too much about the future, but Ndao believes there is great potential. 

"Hopefully one day, it will be used to unlock the mysteries of outer space, explore and harvest our own planet’s deep-beneath-the-surface geology, and harness waste heat for more efficient-energy utilization," he said.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.