Today’s silicon-based microprocessor chips rely on electric currents, or moving electrons, that generate a lot of waste heat. But microprocessors employing nanometer-sized bar magnets – like tiny refrigerator magnets – for memory, logic and switching operations theoretically would require no moving electrons.
Such chips would dissipate only 18 millielectron volts of energy per operation at room temperature, the minimum allowed by the second law of thermodynamics and called the Landauer limit. That’s 1 million times less energy per operation than consumed by today’s computers.
To build their circuits, the researchers used pieces of DNA to make so-called logic gates—devices that produce on-off output signals in response to on-off input signals. Logic gates are the building blocks of the digital logic circuits that allow a computer to perform the right actions at the right time. In a conventional computer, logic gates are made with electronic transistors, which are wired together to form circuits on a silicon chip. Biochemical circuits, however, consist of molecules floating in a test tube of salt water. Instead of depending on electrons flowing in and out of transistors, DNA-based logic gates receive and produce molecules as signals. The molecular signals travel from one specific gate to another, connecting the circuit as if they were wires.