Switching the Way We Shrink Computer Chips

Sept. 1, 2010
Looking beyond traditional silicon, HP, Rice University developing technology to create faster, smaller chips.

While computer memory continues to shrink, chip manufacturers have fretted that the limits of physics and finance would ultimately lead to an inevitable slowdown in the development of packing ever more power and speed into smaller devices such as laptops, smart phones and tablets.

Those barriers to miniaturization might have recently been bypassed by the emergence of two groundbreaking technologies.

At Rice University, according to a report in Nano Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society, scientists have discovered a way to produce small, critically needed digital switches at scales that have previously been thought to be impossible, by using silicon oxide. Silicon oxide is a common chemical compound used primarily as an insulator by the industry. The fact that it is easily available and very easy to manufacture makes it commercially appealing.

These small digital switches could yield single chips that store as much as todays highest capacity disk drives, according to Rice researchers.

Scientists from Rice have been working with a Texas-based startup called PrivaTran to develop prototype chips which use filaments that are five nanometers in width. To put that into perspective, a nanometer is one billionth the size of a meter. That makes the filaments already thinner than what the computer industry hopes to produce within the next decade using current manufacturing techniques.

Hewlett Packard, meanwhile, is closing in on an announcement of a partnership it has created with a yet-to-be announced semiconductor company regarding a similar, but competing technology, which has the potential to vastly multiply the density of computer data storage over the next decade.

HP and Rice scientists have created what are called memristors, or memory resistors, which are switches that can retain information without power in much the same way that flash memory can retain data. The technology has existed in theory for nearly 50 years, but until now there has been no practical way to realize its development.

The most common method for expanding on the existing technology of increasing the density of chips has been by layering them, and stacking circuits on top of each other. While this process has proven helpful and continues to be applied today, it is both costly and limited from a technological perspective.

Chip manufacturers are aggressively trying to confront the inherent limitations of todays semiconductor technology. Each new advanced chip-making factory can cost over $4 billion to properly stock with tools and equipment to create the current generation of chips.

Companies such as IBM and Intel are promoting a competing technology called phase-change memory, which relies on heat to transform a glassy material into a crystalline state, then back again. The technology has shown promise specifically for flash chips, which retain memory without power.

While none of these new technologies are bound to hit the consumer market next year or even in five years, for that matter the potential for computer chip technology is once again limitless.

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