Shrink to Fit: MITRE-Harvard Collaboration Continues Nanoprocessing Chain of Success

November 2011
A MITRE and Harvard team has demonstrated the world's first nanoprocessor, a groundbreaking prototype that advances the science of ultra-tiny computing systems.
soldier with radio

It's a familiar sight: warfighters traversing rugged terrain, bent over under huge backpacks, carrying equipment piled high over their heads. Much of that gear consists of electronic devices such as laptops, handheld radios, and gun sights. In addition to these electronic gadgets being bulky by themselves, they also draw a lot of power, which adds hefty batteries to the warfighter's kit.

"We want to reduce the size of their high-tech equipment and shrink the power needed to run it—to lighten their load," says James Ellenbogen, chief scientist of the Nanosystems Group at MITRE. "A key element in that strategy is the development of very tiny, very low-power computers."

That quest took a significant step forward earlier this year, when a team of scientists and engineers at MITRE, in collaboration with nanotechnology researchers at Harvard University, demonstrated the world's first programmable nanoprocessor. Together, they developed complex computer circuits that can be built from ultra-tiny components. "We want to achieve high performance and reasonably long lifetime on a battery the size of a watch battery," Ellenbogen explains.

Information about the groundbreaking prototype computer system devised by the MITRE-Harvard team first appeared in the international journal, Nature. Shamik Das, principal engineer in MITRE's Nanosystems Group and chief architect of the nanoprocessor, led the company's development team.

The MITRE researchers worked with a five-person Harvard team, headed by Charles Lieber, a world-leading nanotechnology investigator. MITRE's collaboration with Lieber dates back to the late 1990s.

"Our fruitful collaboration with Harvard continues to raise the bar for our nanosystems research and development," says Das. "It has been exciting to be part of the effort that has finally advanced the nanoprocessor from concept to reality."

Das, Ellenbogen, and James Klemic—director of MITRE's nanotechnology laboratories—designed and tested the "tiles," or nanochips, which the Harvard team then built. The two sides constantly exchanged data and viewpoints on the design, fabrication, and use of programmable, scalable tiles. The Harvard researchers then assembled the system according to MITRE's architecture. Subsequently, the resulting nanocircuitry was tested both at Harvard and by MITRE staff in the corporation's nanotechnology lab.

Size Small

Most deployed military personnel today carry information systems with them, all of which require continuous power. The significance of the MITRE-Harvard technical innovation lies in the ultra-tiny electronic computing system. The nanoprocessor can perform a wide variety of basic computing functions, all while using very little power.

"Our nanoprocessor circuits are building blocks that can control and enable a new class of smaller, lighter-weight electronic sensors and even consumer electronics," explains Das. "Tiny nanocircuits, using very fine wires, can be programmed electronically to perform several basic arithmetic and logical functions."

This particular innovation shows great promise for government and industrial applications. It also dovetails with MITRE's objective to deliver research to the government that provides insight on how best to leverage the power of nanotechnology to solve current and future sponsor challenges.

"The nanoprocessor we built is just one tile of an overall architecture," Ellenbogen says. "We would like to create nanoprocessors with multiple tiles, and improve the performance of each tile, to shrink the amount of energy required. This is consistent with our mission to reduce the size and weight of all C4ISR [command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] systems, not just for soldiers on foot, but even on tanks, ships, planes, and armored vehicles.

"We want to reduce all of it and assemble it in a meaningful way," he says. "Some of it is limited by physics, but much of it is not."

—by Cheryl Scaparrotta

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