Part of the Computing fundamentals glossary:

A nanocomputer is a computer whose physical dimensions are microscopic. The field of nanocomputing is part of the emerging field of nanotechnology . Several types of nanocomputers have been suggested or proposed by researchers and futurists.

Electronic nanocomputers would operate in a manner similar to the way present-day microcomputers work. The main difference is one of physical scale. More and more transistor s are squeezed into silicon chips with each passing year; witness the evolution of integrated circuits ( IC s) capable of ever-increasing storage capacity and processing power. The ultimate limit to the number of transistors per unit volume is imposed by the atomic structure of matter. Most engineers agree that technology has not yet come close to pushing this limit. In the electronic sense, the term nanocomputer is relative. By 1970s standards, today's ordinary microprocessors might be called nanodevices.

Chemical and biochemical nanocomputers would store and process information in terms of chemical structures and interactions. Biochemical nanocomputers already exist in nature; they are manifest in all living things. But these systems are largely uncontrollable by humans. We cannot, for example, program a tree to calculate the digits of pi , or program an antibody to fight a particular disease (although medical science has come close to this ideal in the formulation of vaccines, antibiotics, and antiviral medications). The development of a true chemical nanocomputer will likely proceed along lines similar to genetic engineering. Engineers must figure out how to get individual atoms and molecules to perform controllable calculations and data storage tasks.

Mechanical nanocomputers would use tiny moving components called nanogears to encode information. Such a machine is reminiscent of Charles Babbage 's analytical engines of the 19th century. For this reason, mechanical nanocomputer technology has sparked controversy; some researchers consider it unworkable. All the problems inherent in Babbage's apparatus, according to the naysayers, are magnified a millionfold in a mechanical nanocomputer. Nevertheless, some futurists are optimistic about the technology, and have even proposed the evolution of nanorobots that could operate, or be controlled by, mechanical nanocomputers.

A quantum nanocomputer would work by storing data in the form of atomic quantum states or spin. Technology of this kind is already under development in the form of single-electron memory (SEM) and quantum dots. The energy state of an electron within an atom , represented by the electron energy level or shell, can theoretically represent one, two, four, eight, or even 16 bits of data. The main problem with this technology is instability. Instantaneous electron energy states are difficult to predict and even more difficult to control. An electron can easily fall to a lower energy state, emitting a photon ; conversely, a photon striking an atom can cause one of its electrons to jump to a higher energy state.

This was last updated in September 2005
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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