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Boffins' brilliant plan: CONCRETE COMPUTERS

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At times it might seem to some of us as though the world's top boffins are slacking at their task of making our technology better and more advanced: but not today. Today we learn that some of them are on the track of something which everyone involved in IT must have been lusting after for years.

Wouldn't it be nice, you must have thought, if instead of all this plastic and silicon and glass and so forth, my kit - displays, chips, tablets, laptops, all of it - could be made instead of lovely concrete?

Well, maybe it can. Topflight brainboxes at the US government's Argonne National Lab have been toiling away on this for some time, and they believe they may have cracked a vital enabling tech trick - to wit, that of getting liquid cement to behave like a metal. According to an Argonne statement:

This makes cement a semi-conductor and opens up its use in the profitable consumer electronics marketplace for thin films, protective coatings, and computer chips.

Not only the chips and the casing of your device could be made of the rough grey material of tomorrow, but even the display.

“This new material has lots of applications, including as thin-film resistors used in liquid-crystal displays, basically the flat panel computer monitor that you are probably reading this from at the moment,” explains Chris Benmore, Argonne Lab physicist.

In essence the crafty trick perfected by Benmore and colleagues around the world is that of getting cement to become a "metallic glass", aka "liquid metal". Such materials have long been experimented on in labs, but so far it's only been possible to make them out of metal and they haven't yet taken the world by storm as many have thought they might - though the SIM removal tool in some early iPhones and 'Pads was made of such stuff.

“This phenomenon of trapping electrons and turning liquid cement into liquid metal was found recently, but not explained in detail until now,” Benmore says. “Now that we know the conditions needed to create trapped electrons in materials we can develop and test other materials to find out if we can make them conduct electricity in this way.”

The problem with using metallic glasses in the real world is that they need to made very hot to form, so hot that moulding and handling them becomes very difficult. Benmore and his colleagues overcame this with their test batches of liquid metal cement by using an "aerodynamic levitator with carbon dioxide laser beam heating" - though they don't specify (or know yet) whether this method would be suitable for industrial use.

All in all, the new super metallo cement glass stuff would seem to be a lot further from actual use than regular metalglass/liquidmetal - and even that seems to be somewhat bogged down. But the prospect of concrete* computing seems intriguing nonetheless. ®

Bootnote

*We do know that cement isn't the same as concrete. For those that don't, cement is mixed with "aggregate" - other stuff such as broken rock, pebbles or whatever else may be handy - to make concrete. Cement is basically the glue that holds concrete together. What the boffins are on about above is cement.

However should one in future make a display, chip or whatever using liquid-metallic cement tech, the finished product would surely also include other things just as concrete includes other things than cement. So it might seem fair enough to call it a "concrete computer".

You may disagree, but then you aren't writing this.

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