"The Chemistry of Computers"

Crista Falk


Honors Chem B5

 When one hears the term “chemistry,” a distinct image comes to mind: the quintessential scientist, equipped with a lab coat and safety glasses, combining reactive substances to create extraordinary concoctions in a beaker. Similarly, people tend to associate computers with its own stereotype as well: the four eyed, reclusive geek, madly hacking into the network mainframe of some bank or federal organization. Despite these solidified clichés, the subjects of chemistry and computer science are both quite extensive and exist in numerous forms. In actuality, professionals from both practices are able to apply their knowledge to achieve a plethora of unique goals apart from what is typically associated with their trade. Interestingly, there is even a point at which the skills of chemists and computer engineers converge. Chemistry is crucially entangled in the production and development of computers. On a like tangent, computer technology can even be used to aid in the conduction of chemistry. A profound symbiosis has evolved between chemistry and computer science which serves to expand the range of scientific opportunity present within each subject.

 Believe it or not, much of computing has to do with chemistry. Chemistry is what makes computing possible in the first place. Chemical processes are vital in the creation of computer hardware. Computers are made of semiconductive transistors which control the processing of information by way of electrons (“The Chemistry of Computing”). Transistors were invented over six decades ago by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley of Bell Labs, awarding them a Nobel Prize for their works (“The Chemistry of Computing”). Transistors, made of silicon and germanium, are able to conduct electricity better than insulators such as glass, but not quite as well as full conductors such aluminum, which puts them in the category of semiconductors (“The Chemistry of Computing”). Computers transistors are able to amplify electricity as well as control the flow of said electricity through the exploitation of this semiconductive ability. Computers act as electronic on-off devices; the “on” status completes a circuit whereas the “off” status breaks the flow of current (“The Chemistry of Computing”). When combined, this attribute allows for billions of arithmetic computations to occur in the form of ones (on) and zeros (off), known as binary. However, not all semiconductive substances are created equal. Therefore, computer companies invest millions of dollars into hiring employees with chemistry backgrounds. Chemists are responsible for overseeing chemical processes as well as brainstorming new substances to push the computer industry forward. Although most transistors are composed of silicon dioxide today, companies have researched the prospect of creating computers which use gallium arsenide (GaAs) or returning to the formerly used element germanium. Chemists at Intel have even announced their recent use of what they refer to as “high-k material” in computer chips. The “k” in its name refers to the transistor’s high charge holding capacity (“The Chemistry of Computing”). Although Intel refuses to elaborate upon what exactly the material is, key compounds in the industry include hafnium oxide, lanthanum oxide, and zirconium oxide (“The Chemistry of Computing”). The focus of technology corporations to develop new chemical substances for their electronics comes down to pushing the functionality of electronics to their physical limit. Fundamentally, it is chemistry which allows computers, from gameboys to smart phones, to work.

 Over time computers have grown tinier, faster, and more efficient. However, as engineers test the limits of Moore’s Law, which states that integrated circuits increase in speed and decrease in size exponentially every two years, a roadblock has challenged their ability to progress (“Moore's Law”). Microprocessors will inevitably reach a point at which they become too small to function within the known laws of physics. Luckily, chemistry has allowed scientists to find a way around this. For example, nanotechnology has allowed for transistors, consisting of carbon and silicon structures the size of viruses, to transfer electricity across a circuit at a much faster rate (“Moore's Law”). Chemistry allows scientists to better understand computer technology as microprocessors get increasingly smaller and faster.

 Moreover, scientists have proposed optical and quantum computing to continue innovating computers into the future. The science behind the mechanics of these computers may be complex, but the basis of their use is simple to conceptualize. To say that computers today are fast is an understatement, yet there are limitations correlated with the use of modern transistors: metallic wires can only transmit information so fast, electronic chips can only get so small, and resistance in the computer processor can lead to higher power usage and excess heating (“Optical Computers”). Through optical computation, scientists hope to overcome these adversities. Much like the way which traditional computers use semiconductive metals to control the flow of electrons, optical computers utilize light particles known as photons to transmit multiple frequencies through a medium such as optical fibers (“Optical Computers). Then through the use of laser beams, data can then be stored as a hologram within a crystal, referred to as “holographic memory” (“Optical Computers”). This allows optical computers to function at virtually light speed. Although this process seems complicated and alien, it holds the key to unlocking many advantages in the world of computing, ranging from a reduced size, less power usage, reduced heat emission, and a greater performance speed capability (“Optical Computers”). Likewise, the concept of quantum computers has been visualized by physicists and chemists to achieve computational abilities which were previously unfathomable. Quantum computing bases itself in the quantum-mechanical property of superposition. While most information stored in computers can be represented by binary as exclusively a one or zero, quantum bits, called qubits, can take the form of a zero, one, or both states simultaneously (Cartlidge). This entanglement means that quantum computations can be performed exponentially quicker than traditional computers (Cartlidge). As quantum computation is still very much in its beta stage, presently only capable of simple algebraic tasks such as determining the prime factors of a two digit number, computer scientists must enlist the help of chemists to transform this dream into a reality. There are several methods proposed to execute quantum computing in the physical world: including spin qubits, superconducting circuits, ion traps, and photonic circuits (Cartlidge). Even optical technology can integrate with quantum theory to create an entirely new form of computer: linear optical quantum computers. Such computers utilize what are known as photonic qubits to process data efficiently (Cartlidge). This combines the efficiency of optical computing with the calculation ability of true quantum computing. Each modern computer research team relies on the work of chemists to theorize new ways to improve computing in a world of rapidly advancing technology. Thus, chemical and computer principles can be used to revolutionize the computer industry.

 While chemistry definitely assists in computing, the inverse is true as well. Computers can serve as an invaluable tool in the field of chemistry, accomplishing a number of tasks. These computer programs can be summarized into a few categories based on their purpose: prediction, analysis, calculation, and testing. For instance, computer software already exists to predict the properties of unknown chemical substances based on a plethora of previously collected data (National Research Council (US) Committee on Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century). This reduces human blind spots and biases in chemical analysis by scientists, generating the most objectively correct prediction possible. Furthermore, computers are capable predicting chemical reactions in terms of proven molecular, quantum, and statistical principles or how a molecule will behave based on the properties of the system in which it exists (National Research Council (US) Committee on Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century). Computers are even able to predict the three-dimensional geometry of proteins determined by its constituent amino acid sequence (National Research Council (US) Committee on Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century). This could have major implications in the field of biochemistry since the human genome could thereby be translated into encoded polypeptide structures rather than a series of three-letter triplet codons, allowing for the visualization of human DNA on a more relatable scale. A second use of computers in chemistry lies in testing and analysis. Theoretical tests run on a computer can be used to disprove or support new medical treatments, inorganic substances, and commercial drugs in their hypothetical stages, which allows for a thorough analysis of the product’s dependability before it has even been produced (National Research Council (US) Committee on Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century). Environments which simulate real world physics are an advantageous tool to say the least, for they remove all real world risks, miscalculations, and unforeseen consequences associated with early trial testing. Excitingly, computer algorithms could even be developed to combat major problems facing the world today, as big as human caused climate change. Environmental chemists would be able to use computers to determine the most optimal ratio of raw material harvesting to consumption, pollution, energy use, and the global ramifications of different chemical processes (National Research Council (US) Committee on Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century). In this way, computers could transform the way humans react chemically with the Earth. Ultimately, when information is provided by a machine, it effectively increases efficiency, eliminates bias, and provides accurate and credible answers to chemists and humans everywhere.

 Chemistry and computers may seem to be intrinsically separate schools of thought, but each is necessary in computer and most science industries today. Without this relationship, innovations in both categories could simply not advance to the extent that they have. Unfortunately, neither chemistry nor computer science is given the credit it deserves in the other’s field. It is crucial to remember the chemistry of computers and the implications of computation to real world chemistry. When considering technology as the sum of its contributing forces, the mysticism behind how computers work is thus replaced with an even more mind-blowing appreciation for the complex chemistry that makes computation possible.

Works Cited

Cartlidge, Edwin. “Quantum Computing: How Close Are We?” Optics & Photonics News (OPN), The Optical Society, Oct. 2016, www.osa-opn.org/home/articles/volume_27/
quantum_computing_how_close_are_we/. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

“The Chemistry of Computing.” Extremetech, LLC.PCMag Digital Group, 5 Apr. 2006, www.extremetech.com/computing/77316-the-chemistry-of-computing. Accessed 14 Apr. 2017.

“Moore's Law.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 24 Nov. 2003, www.investopedia.com/terms/m/
mooreslaw.asp. Accessed 14 Apr. 2017.

National Research Council (US) Committee on Challenges for the Chemical Sciences in the 21st Century. “Chemical Theory and Computer Modeling: From Computational Chemistry to Process Systems Engineering.” Beyond the Molecular Frontier: Challenges for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 1970, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207665/. Accessed 14 Apr. 2017.

“Optical Computers.” Science News, vol. 143, no. 4, 23 Jan. 1993, p. 63., uncw.edu/phy/documents/Raphael_06.pdf. Accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

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