Scientists at Rice University and Hewlett-Packard are reporting this week that they can overcome a fundamental barrier to the continued rapid miniaturization of computer memory that has been the basis for the consumer electronics revolution.
In recent years the limits of physics and finance faced by chip makers had loomed so large that experts feared a slowdown in the pace of miniaturization that would act like a brake on the ability to pack ever more power into ever smaller devices like laptops, smartphones and digital cameras.
In one of the two new developments, Rice researchers are reporting in Nano Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society, that they have succeeded in building reliable small digital switches — an essential part of computer memory — that could shrink to a significantly smaller scale than is possible using conventional methods.
More important, the advance is based on silicon oxide, one of the basic building blocks of today’s chip industry, thus easing a move toward commercialization. The scientists said that PrivaTran, a Texas startup company, has made experimental chips using the technique that can store and retrieve information.
These chips store only 1,000 bits of data, but if the new technology fulfills the promise its inventors see, single chips that store as much as today’s highest capacity disk drives could be possible in five years. The new method involves filaments as thin as five nanometers in width — thinner than what the industry hopes to achieve by the end of the decade using standard techniques. The initial discovery was made by Jun Yao, a graduate researcher at Rice. Mr. Yao said he stumbled on the switch by accident.
Separately, H.P. is to announce on Tuesday that it will enter into a commercial partnership with a major semiconductor company to produce a related technology that also has the potential of pushing computer data storage to astronomical densities in the next decade. H.P. and the Rice scientists are making what are called memristors, or memory resistors, switches that retain information without a source of power.
“There are a lot of new technologies pawing for attention,” said Richard Doherty, president of the Envisioneering Group, a consumer electronics market research company in Seaford, N.Y. “When you get down to these scales, you’re talking about the ability to store hundreds of movies on a single chip.”
The announcements are significant in part because they indicate that the chip industry may find a way to preserve the validity of Moore’s Law. Formulated in 1965 by Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, the law is an observation that the industry has the ability to roughly double the number of transistors that can be printed on a wafer of silicon every 18 months.