Instead of trying to cool the computers, the researchers use the heat to allow computing at ultra-high temperatures.
"If you think about it, whatever you do with electricity you should also be able to do with heat, because they are similar in many ways," assistant professor Sidy Ndao said. "In principle, they are both energy carriers. If you could control heat, you could use it to do computing and avoid the problem of overheating."
The engineers claim the device works in temperatures that approach 330°C and expect it could eventually work in heat as extreme as 700°C.
"We are basically creating a thermal computer," Ndao said. "It could be used in space exploration, for exploring the core of the earth, for oil drilling, and other applications. It could allow us to do calculations and process data in real time in places where we haven't been able to do so before."
By taking advantage of an energy source that has long been overlooked, Ndao said, the thermal diode could also help limit the amount of energy that gets wasted.
"It is said now that 60% of the energy produced for consumption in the United States is wasted in heat," Ndao said. "If you could harness this heat and use it for energy in these devices, you could obviously cut down on waste and the cost of energy."
The next step is making the device more efficient and making a physical computer.