Researchers in China have discovered a combination of metals that could have great potential for the next generation of memory-storage devices, which will use "phase-change" memory instead of Flash memory.
Researchers from the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the National Laboratory of Solid State Nanostructures at Nanjing University have invented an electronic alloy of 50 aluminum atoms bound to 50 atoms of antimony to serve as the potential foundation for phase-change memory devices. The devices could provide more storage density and operate faster in a far smaller form factor than Flash memory.
The environmentally friendly alloy has been dubbed the "50-50 chip" by the researchers, who have published their findings in the journal Applied Physics Letters (registration required).
A prototype of a phase-change memory device developed by researchers in China. (Source: Xilin Zhou, Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
Phase-change memory is so named because it depends on materials that change from a disordered, amorphous structure to a crystalline structure when an electrical pulse is applied. The material has high electrical resistance in its amorphous state and a low resistance in its crystalline state. This change corresponds to the 1 and 0 states of binary data. A phase-change memory device can be less than 10 nanometers long; Flash memory devices generally can't be smaller than 20 nanometers.
Scientists have been working with a material containing germanium, antimony, and tellurium for phase-change memory devices. But Xilin Zhou, a researcher at the Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told PR Newswire that working with two metals is easier than working with three.
It's difficult to control the phase-change memory manufacturing process of ternary alloys such as the traditionally used germanium-antimony-tellurium material. Etching and polishing of the material with chalcogens can change the material's composition, due to the motion of the tellurium atoms.
Zhou told us in an email that he and his colleagues worked for a year with aluminum and antimony to come up with the material to create a prototype phase-change memory device.
First, the thermal, electrical, optical properties of the material were demonstrated and analyzed to address the issues that need to be solved in current memory technology. Second, the prototype memory devices were fabricated to examine the storage performances of the arrays with this material.
The research showed that the material is more thermally stable than the combination of germanium, antimony, and tellurium. It also has three distinct levels of resistance, which give it the ability to store three bits of data in a single memory cell, instead of just two.
Zhou said researchers are working with the material and the prototype device to explore its potential for phase-change memory. "More experiments on the film will be carried out to disclose the underlying rules of the interested 'phase-change' of this material, and the storage performance of the memory cells" will also be tested.
I didn't knpw about the memristor from HP, Lou. I'll have to check that out. With HP working on it, though, I'd say it probably has a head start on this technology, at least commercially. This still seems largely something going on in the lab, but with the backing of HP the memristor could make it to the commercial sector faster. Will be an interesting space to watch either way.
I always thought that the 'maybe' position might make a more promising system. Computers, as they exist today, have two states, the off (0) and on (1) state. What I was wondering about is if we could change that to three states, the 'yes' (1), no (-1), and maybe (0) based system. The state of uncertainty, in my opinion, leads to the very nature of creativity and self-expression. For video games, this type of a 'thinking' machine might make playing games a lot more fun. In military applications, the 'maybe' position would allow the machine to speculate on possibilities that might only occur randomly in nature, and thus allow the guidance systems in missiles to determine whether or not a target was friend or foe (and it would prevent marines from shooting camels with tow missiles - yes, when I was in the Persian Gulf in 1990, we had a marine do that because he "...thought it was a tank." And they wonder why Air Force guys pick on marines). It would also allow us to improve self-driving cars and autopilot systems in aircraft, as well as make space probes that, unlike the Mars lander, could route themselves in different directions based upon actual readings from their instruments, and ignore things like instructions given in inches and feet instead of millimeters and meters. The possibilities are limitless for a 'maybe' system.
I have wondered if there is a physical principle that could enable a computer to work in the base 10 number system instead of binary. I'm not sure what the advantage might be but it's a thought. Sometimes stupid ideas take off and fly.
I really like it when simple chemical or physical relationships between materials are used to make something work in an elegant and simple way. The principle of phase change memory is what's behind the now-venerable techniques of PRAM. This new version looks like a simpler way to go than previous attempts.
Elizabeth, this is an interesting technology. Obviously it is in the early stages. It seems like it would be a direct competitor to the memristor, which HP is working on. It will be interesting to see how these two stack up.
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