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27 April 2017

New Thermal Diode May Help Enable Heat-Powered Computer Technology

Overheating is a common issue for computers, largely due to the fact that electricity tends to generate a fair amount of heat as a standard by-product. For computing technologies intended for use in extreme conditions, such the exploration of space and planetary bodies, or research into the depths of the Earth, this problem is understandably far more severe, as external heat sources combine with internal ones to ramp the temperature up.

In an effort to get around this issue, researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed a new thermal diode which relies on heat rather than electricity for power, according to a recent study published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Img: University of Nebraska-Lincoln
“If you think about it, whatever you do with electricity you should be able to do with heat, because they are similar in many ways,” says Sidy Ndao, co-author of the study. “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.”

The new thermal diode is comprised of pairs or surfaces, one fixed and one that can be moved closer to or further from the first. The movement of the second surface is automated in order to maximise the transfer of heat. For example, if the second surface is hotter than the first, it will move closer in order to transfer the heat at an accelerated rate.

The diode hit a peak heat transfer rate of 11% when operating in temperatures ranging from 215°F to 494°F, but can apparently operate at temperatures up to 620°F, according to the research team. Ndao further stated his belief that more advanced versions in the future may even reach extreme highs of 1,300°F without difficulty.

“We are basically creating a thermal computer,” says Ndao. “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.”

The research further states that by making use of such thermal components, we could feed wasted heat back into the system, thereby vastly improving its energy efficiency.

“It is said now that nearly 60 percent of the energy produced for consumption in the United States is wasted in heat,” says Ndao. “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.”

Of course diodes are far from the only required component in a computer, and as such a fully-functioning thermal computer would require extensive research into how to adapt the rest of the system to withstand such extreme temperatures. Still, the prospect is promising. 

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.