Heat, technically, has always been one of the worst enemies of computers. Which is why engineers have been doing their best to design them in a way that will prevent heat from building up on the inside so the computer won’t malfunction, shut down or get its internal components damaged.
Rather than continue fighting the heat factor, two engineers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) decided to do the complete opposite — embrace and turn it into an alternative power source that would enable computing at extremely high temperatures.
Taking off from their reasoning that because of the similarities between heat and electricity — primarily, both of these forms carry energy so whatever you can do with one, you should also be able to do with the other — study co-authors Sidy Ndao, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering, and Mahmoud Elzouka, a mechanical and materials engineering graduate student, developed the first component needed to build a heat-powered computer. It’s called a thermal diode — a nano-thermal-mechanical device that can work in temperatures over 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
Technically referred to as a NanoThermoMechanical rectifier, the device consists of two metallic plates — a fixed terminal (the top part) and a moving terminal (the bottom part) — and a structure that expands with heat connected to the moving terminal.
Image courtesy of University of Nebraska-Lincoln
The farther the terminals are from each other, the lower the heat transfer rate. Conversely, the closer the terminals are, the higher the heat transfer. And because it’s the mobile terminal (bottom plate) that’s connected to the thermally-expanding structure, it is only when this plate is heated that there’s heat transfer via near-field thermal radiation as the lower plate is pushed closer to the upper plate. In other words, heating the upper plate doesn’t do anything, which is what makes the device a diode — with current flowing from one direction only.
Based on tests done, the thermal diode is able to operate at temperatures over 600 degrees Fahrenheit. And by improving on the device further, the team is confident that it will be able to withstand even higher temperatures which is precisely what’s needed to explore the molten cores of our planet, as well as the surfaces of ultra-hot alien worlds like Venus and Mars.
As Ndao explained in a report that came out of the UNL newsroom: “We are basically creating a thermal computer. 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.”
If the device works as intended, it will not only be able to capitalize on harnessing energy that is normally just wasted, but more importantly, it will also be able to minimize energy loss, thereby reducing the cost of energy in the process. And even better, if they are able to do it right, the more heat there is, the more efficient the device will perform.
The research was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.