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Clearing A Hurdle For Superconducting Chips

Researchers have found a solution to the problem of painfully slow interchip communication.
Scientists have called the benefits of superconducting chips mind-boggling. Since they have no resistance to electrical current, superconductors' power consumption represents a fraction of what silicon chips use, and their on-chip speed exceeds silicon by a factor of 10 to 12. But there has always been one major problem: painfully slow interchip communication.

Researchers at TRW Space and Electronics Group in Redondo Beach, Calif., have found a solution using circuits made from niobium. Their superconducting chips far outpace silicon chips, transmitting as many as 60 Gbps. But it may still take some time before chipmakers embrace a new material.

The high overhead costs are prohibitive for low-end consumer electronics, says professor Konstantin Likharev, an expert in superconductor electronics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Refrigeration costs alone would total $20,000 to $30,000 for a single chip, because superconducting chips must to be cooled to liquid-helium temperatures. "You won't see these chips in talking toasters," he says. It does make sense for high-performance computing or Internet switching base stations. Because switching hubs cost millions, the additional refrigeration cost would seem nominal, he says. If the refrigerators were produced in volume, the cost could go down to $1,000 or less, Likharev says. "I don't know what chip manufacturers are thinking--I'm surprised no one has jumped on this."