Aug. 11, 2021

Researcher goes small to make big discoveries in computing

Pierre Kennepohl has received funding to examine the base molecules in molecular computing
Pierre Kennepohl

A University of Calgary researcher has received Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) funding to better understand the behaviour of molecules in molecular computing.

Dr. Pierre Kennepohl, PhD, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, says the computer technology of the past 30 years has been based on bulk semi-conductors, which are blocks of material that have gotten smaller as computers have gotten faster over the years.

The properties of the material essentially stay the same the smaller the semi-conductor gets, be it five metres or five micrometres. However, Kennepohl says we have reached a critical point in computing where we are reaching the molecular level in terms of the size of these semi-conductors.

“If we want our computers to get faster, we need to start using molecules as the components of the computer,” he says.

This creates a new challenge. Once you reach the molecular level the size of the molecule really matters and the properties of the molecule change depending upon size. This means that developers of computers will have to think about the properties of these molecules individually.

There are no longer a bunch of components that are working the same way and can have the same principles applied to them. We now must worry about changing the size of the molecule or changing an atom in the molecule and the major change in the properties of the molecule that causes.

“From a technological standpoint, it’s almost a requirement that if we want our computers to get faster, we have to deal with this problem,” says Kennepohl.

Figuring out which characteristic of the molecule matters

This is where Kennepohl’s project comes into play. He is trying to understand which characteristics of the molecule will matter when put into a computing system.

His goal with the project is not to build molecular computers, as there are other people working on engineering those, but rather he is looking at which molecules would work best in those computers.

Kennepohl and his team are picking molecules that are “particularly cool,” and examining the electronic properties of those molecules to determine which ones will work best.

“The goal is to set up some rules for what exactly will work and why,” says Kennepohl.

He says a neat thing about this field is that once they have established the rules, they can use computing to help them figure out what the next best computers will look like.

The instruments needed to probe the molecules

Kennepohl will use the CFI funding he has received to purchase specific instruments which probe how molecules react to light in several different ways.

He says the funding allows them to move forward and answer questions that they wouldn’t be able to answer otherwise.

“It basically allows us to do what we want to do,” Kennepohl says.

Kennepohl recently moved to UCalgary from the University of British Columbia, and says the core strengths of quantum and molecular computing at the university really excite him.

He says that while they will never be able to find the optimal solution for molecular computing, they can find the pathway that leads towards that solution.

“In an analogy, there’s a bunch of really bad gravel roads right now that lead to the top of the mountain,” Kennepohl says. “What we need to do is choose the right path and then pave the road.”