No fowl play

Computer processor made from chicken feathers

Published: Saturday 31 August 2002

imagine replacing silicon with materials generated from waste chicken feathers to make microchips. Think it is impossible? No says Richard Wool. He and his colleagues from the Newark-based University of Delaware have developed chips of computer processors made from chicken feathers. The chip consists of soybean resin and feathers crafted into a composite material that looks and feels like silicon. The researchers used chicken feathers because they have shafts that are hollow but strong, and made mostly of air, which is a good conductor of electricity.

During preliminary tests, electrical signals moved twice as quickly through the feather chip as through a conventional silicon chip. "The first time, Wool's response was 'recheck'," said Chang Kook Hong, who headed the research. "I repeated the test three times and got the same results. Then he said, 'you have a hit here'."

The chicken-feather microchip is not as weird as it sounds. A microchip is basically a wafer of silicon inscribed with a dense maze of transistors. For the chip to do its computational magic, electric signals have to travel across these transistors. These signals travel faster in the presence of some materials than others. Air, for instance, allows the fastest movement of all, because it provides essentially no resistance. When travelling near solids, however, the movement tends to kick up opposing positive charges. These charges can distract the signal from completing its appointed rounds.

Among the solid materials, silicon offers the least resistance. That's why it has been used in microchips for so long. But engineers are always looking for ways to turbocharge their chips. One possible alternative for increasing a chip's speed was to find a quicker material than silicon. So Wool turned to the chicken feather. He knew that feathers contain lots of air. Moreover, because the birds need to fly, their feathers are strong yet light.

But obstacles still remain for Intel factories to become chicken plucking centres. The major hurdles are the natural bumps and irregularities that come from using an organic base, which make feather chips hard to fabricate. "The microchip industry depends on materials that are ultra smooth and ultra flat. At present, the feather chips are anything but that," says Dennis Prather, an associate professor at the university.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.