NRL joins Ithaca-led search for new methods of increasing computing power

NRL joins Ithaca-led search for new methods of increasing computing power

March 31, 2021

The Naval Research Laboratory is collaborating with Ithaca College and the State University of New York at Brockport on research into alternative methods of increasing computing power, and in turn reduce electrical power consumption. The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, will involve undergraduates from both academic institutions.

As technology has advanced over the last five decades, the number of transistors on a silicon computer chip has nearly doubled every two years. That trend can’t continue forever, though, according to Matthew C. Sullivan, a professor of physics at Ithaca.

Sullivan and his research partners have received a $196,000 grant from the NSF to studying thin films of niobium oxide for use in neuromorphic circuits, which seek to replicate the functioning of the brain. The project’s goal is to develop niobium oxide-based electronic components that can seamlessly integrate with current state-of-the-art silicon-based electronics.

Some of the grant funds will be used to send students to the Naval Research Laboratory to see how these materials are made and to bring some back to Ithaca College. Once in Ithaca, students will use the Cornell Nanofabrication Science and Technology Facility, a world class clean room, to turn the films into electrical devices for measurement at Ithaca College. which will involve undergraduate students at Ithaca College and SUNY Brockport.

“Increasing computer power, it’s going to fail soon, and that’s why people are looking to other ways to improve computer circuits,” Sullivan said. “That's why people started to try and mimic how the brain works, because the brain is a far more powerful computing engine than almost anything we have on earth.”

Sullivan plans to study the electrical characterization of niobium oxide and how it behaves electronically.

“If we do this right and our researchers are successful, we will actually increase computing power and the number of calculations per second while at the same time reducing electrical power consumption,” he said.

Sullivan says they are looking for a switching behavior in these materials that would mimic the behavior of neurons switching on and off in your brain.

“If you can get this switching behavior, you can basically get signals to travel forward through the rest of the circuit, or not, depending on whether or not it switches,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking for and that’s why these are being used in what are called neuromorphic circuits, where they’re trying to get around the limitations of our current circuitry.”

The grant will also be used to support the expansion of current local outreach programs, where Ithaca students present scientific demonstrations and activities to local schools. Lastly, the grant will help generate new YouTube videos on the Ithaca College Physics YouTube channel.

This summer Sullivan will start his research by figuring out how to turn the the niobium oxide films into the electrical devices he needs in order to measure them.

Read more: