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Future tech

Breakthrough by Chinese researchers could lead to smaller and faster memory chips

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 April, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 April, 2015, 10:07am

Confused by the difference between RAM and ROM? Don't know your HDDs from your SSDs? A new discovery by Chinese scientists may eliminate the need for different short and long term computer memory solutions. 

Computer researchers have long struggled for a compromise between long and short term memory. New research suggests the answer may lie in high capacity ferroelectric memory chips both faster and more reliable than current memory solutions.

Long-lasting memory solutions, such as hard or flash drives, can keep data for an extended period, but run too slowly to be used for anything but storage. Short-term memory, such as random access memory (RAM) chips, can be extremely fast, but lose data when the computer shuts down, because their memory bits must be constantly maintained by electric currents.

Over the decades, scientists have sought to develop short-term memory solutions that can retain data without power. One popular solution is ferroelectric RAM.

Ferroelectric materials possess a spontaneous electric polarisation which can be reversed via the application of an external electric field.

FRAM uses ferrite - a mixed oxide of iron and one or more other metals with ferrimagnetic properties – to store "0" or "1" entries in polarised states. Because the atoms respond almost instantaneously under an electric charge, their read and recording speed could in theory match the fastest CPU.

Ferroelectric memory solutions face a big problem however, they require far more space than a conventional hard-drive or memory card, which could severely limit their application in many areas, particularly for mobile devices.

Previous attempts to build high-density ferroelectric memory devices have failed due to the relatively poor understanding of how the materials function on an atomic level.

The study by researchers with the Chinese Academy of Sciences at the Institute of Metal Research in Shenyang, Liaoning, may have filled that gap.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers said high-density storage on ferroelectric chips is not only theoretically possible, but technically achievable.

The team, led by Ma Xiuliang, Zhu Yinlian and Yunlong Tang, detailed in the paper the first-ever observation of an important structure called flux-closure in ferroelectric materials.

“These flux-closure domains should be switchable and may give rise to an unusually high density of bits as well as undergo vortex-polarization phase transformation,” said Ma.

“In a sense they were like neurons, which could be used to store memory.”

The scientists also found a new and effective way to achieve high-density storage.

By changing the thickness of ferroelectric films they could control the periodic array of flux-closures, which would be useful in the design and construction of ferroelectric memory chips.

The study would “assist future development of nanoscale ferroelectric devices such as high-density memories and high-performance energy-harvesting devices,” Ma said.

“Due to their unique nature, ferroelectric materials will not only make better computer memory but also help build super-sensors such as an extremely sensitive bug [tapping device],” he said.