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New Nanotech Research Uses 100 Times Less Power

Researchers from the University of Illinois’ Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, have developed a new digital memory module that uses much less power and is faster than current memory solutions. This breakthrough could lead to future smartphone and laptop devices to have a much longer battery life, as well as possibly improving telecommunications.

The latest research on memory includes phase-change materials(PCM) as an alternative to the kind of memory that stores bits as a charge. Using PCM technology, each bit is stored in the resistance of the material itself and can and can be reversibly switched with short voltage pulses and localized Joule heating. Some advantages of this technology include low voltage operation, fast access times and high endurance, but the cost is the relatively high programming current needed to couple Joule heat to finite bit volume.

Professor Eric Pop, leader of the Illinois research group, has managed to lower the power per bit to a fraction of that used for existing phase-change material solutions. He did this by using the smallest known electronic conductors(rather than using metal wires.) Carbon nanotubes(pictured) are 10,000 times smaller than a human hair and grown by chemical vapor deposition with iron catalyst particles on silicon dioxide/silicon substrates. The resulting single-wall and small diameter multi-wall nanotubes were both discovered to be capable of switching the PCM bits.

The device is initially in the “off state” until a voltage is applied to the nanotube that switches the PCM bit to an “on state”. This switch occurs at the nanogap.

Graduate student and author of the article, Feng Xiong stated “The energy consumption is essentially scaled with the volume of the memory bit…By using nanoscale contacts, we are able to achieve much small power consumption.” Co-author and grad student Albert Liao notes, “Anytime you’re running an app, or storing MP3s, or streaming videos, it’s draining the battery…The memory and the processor are working hard retrieving data.”

As the ultra-low-power digital memory uses 100 times less energy and is faster than the currently available solutions, it could offer immediate battery life benefits to such devices.

What could this mean for the future? Well besides greatly improving the efficiency of our consumer goods, this breakthrough technology could also be applied to anything operating on a battery, including satellites, telecommunications equipment, and military gadgets.

Although this research is promising, much work needs to be done. Eric Pop believes that, one day, the low-power memory could lead to three-dimensional stacking of chips, multiplying the energy efficiency by a factor of ten.

Photo Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory
Photo Courtesy of Adam Greenfield
Photo Courtesy of Gravitywave
Photo Courtesy of Kunal Mukherjee