Thermal diodes may lead to future computers running on heat

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We are well aware of what heat does to an electronic device, and how different devices use various cooling mechanisms (fan, water, and so forth) to prevent them from overheating or shutting down altogether. However, can the same dreaded heat be used as an alternative source of energy to power up those devices? Engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln seem to think so!

A thermal diode

They have developed a thermal diode to achieve the same. As the name suggests, it runs on heat (as opposed to the traditional ones that use electricity). For the uninitiated, a diode is a logic component in electronic circuits that allows electricity to flow freely in one direction while blocking it from flowing the opposite way.

“If you think about it, whatever you do with electricity you should (also) be able to do with heat because they are similar in many ways,” said 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.”

In the paper published by the team, they have claimed that the diodes are working as expected for temperatures up to 630 degrees Fahrenheit (332 degrees Celsius approx.). They expect it to work at temperatures as extreme as 1300 degrees F (704 degrees C), which can then be deployed in computers that can operate in extreme heat conditions.

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

Engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at work

If all goes well, this will result in improved energy efficiency as the heat energy that gets lost now can then be reused to power the device.

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

“If we can achieve high efficiency, show that we can do computations and run a logic system experimentally, then we can have a proof-of-concept,” said Mahmoud Elzouka, co-author of the study. “(That) is when we can think about the future.”

Since diodes are not the only component present in an electronic device, this can be considered as the first step towards achieving a thermal computer. Scientists need to find ways for other elements to operate at higher levels of mercury.


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