Scientists at Northwestern University have developed a new nanomaterial that could allow a computer to reconfigure its internal wiring and become an entirely different device as required.
A single device could, for example, reconfigure itself into a resistor, a rectifier, a diode and a transistor based on signals from a computer. The team's already made some preliminary electronic components.
"Our new steering technology allows use to direct current flow through a piece of continuous material," says professor Bartosz A Grzybowski, who led the research.
"Like redirecting a river, streams of electrons can be steered in multiple directions through a block of the material - even multiple streams flowing in opposing directions at the same time."
The material combines different aspects of silicon- and polymer-based electronics to create what the team says amounts to a new class of electronic materials: nanoparticle-based electronics.
It's composed of electrically conductive particles, each five nanometers in width, coated with a special positively-charged chemical.
The particles are surrounded by a sea of negatively charged atoms that balance out the positive charges fixed on the particles. By applying an electrical charge across the material, the small negative atoms can be moved and reconfigured, but the relatively larger positive particles have to stay put.
By moving the negative atoms around the material, regions of low and high conductance can be modulated to create a directed path that allows electrons to flow through the material.
Old paths can be erased and new ones created by pushing and pulling the sea of negative atoms. Using multiple types of nanoparticles all;ows the creation of more complex electrical components, such as diodes and transistors.
"Besides acting as three-dimensional bridges between existing technologies, the reversible nature of this new material could allow a computer to redirect and adapt its own circuitry to what is required at a specific moment in time," says graduate student David A Walker.