ark stockman is a quick thinker. As a physicist, he spends his time hurdling the challenges of the physical universe, solving complex theoretical problems. But recently Stockman has set his mind to finding a way to make everyone a quicker day-to-day problem-solver — faster than we could’ve ever imagined.
Stockman, Regents’ Professor of Physics at Georgia State, is spearheading research on an optical technology that could make computers run a million times faster and a million times more efficiently, a leap that could fundamentally change the way we live.
Transition metal dichalcogenides (TMDCs) are super-thin but durable semiconductors with optical properties that can essentially super-charge a computer’s processing and data storage capabilities. How much faster? Right now, computers complete functions in fractions of nanoseconds, less than a billionth of a second. Stockman and his fellow researchers at Georgia State’s Center for Nano-Optics believe that TMDCs are capable of doing the same job within a couple of femtoseconds, each of which is one millionth of one billionth of a second.
“Light is the fastest instrument available,” says Stockman. “For the past 10 years, computers have run on electronic processors that haven’t increased in speed. The only way to increase computing power has been to use multiple processors — essentially brute force.”
TMDCs could provide a much more powerful solution. Their hexagonal lattice structure consists of transition metal atoms, like tungsten, squeezed between two layers of chalcogen atoms, oxygen-family elements like sulfur or selenium. In the structure, electrons spin both right and left and in different states, creating an effect known as topological resonance. A computer can use this effect to process information in a matter of femtoseconds.
Increased speed is only one benefit of TMDCs. Whereas today, the only way to increase computing power is to just stack multiple electronic processors, the sandwiched layers of the TMDC are so thin that they are considered a 2D material. That not only saves physical space and materials within the computer. It also conserves the energy it would normally take to cool those electronic processors running at high temperatures. A transistor can only sustain so much heat before it shuts down completely.
“One hundred processors running at one gigabyte are slower than one TMDC processor working at 100 gigs,” says Stockman.
Stockman says his research will eventually move on from the theoretical to the experimental. He and his team are working in part from a $2 million federal grant awarded in 2017. But we’re still probably quite a few years and a paradigm shift away from harnessing this lightning-quick leap forward in our homes and hands. Unfortunately for us, the development of such revolutionary technology is measured in years and decades rather than femtoseconds.
Illustration by Reid Schulz