Researchers at U.S. computer company Hewlett-Packard said on Monday they had created a computer memory chip using new molecular technology that takes miniaturization further than ever before.
Using previously patented technology, the H-P scientists have created a 64-bit memory unit that fits inside a square micron — a micron is one millionth of a meter. The memory contains 10 times more bits per square micron than today’s most advanced DRAM computer chip memory chips.
Its capacity is too low to be useful yet but within five to 10 years the H-P scientists expect to have a commercial product manufactured with what is called nano-imprint technology — manipulating molecules and atoms.
“Our most optimistic forecast for commercialization is five years. Certainly within 10 years it is available,” Stan Williams, H-P Fellow and director of Quantum Science Research at H-P Labs, told journalists in a conference call.
Meanwhile the H-P scientists aim to miniaturize their technology further and create commercial memory chips that can contain 100 gigabits (100,000,000,000 bits) per square centimeter, 15 times more than the lab model and much more than current technology can achieve.
“These memories should have anywhere between 10 or 100 times higher density (memory bits per square centimeter) than DRAMs can have in 10 years time,” Williams said.
Current chip making technologies used to produce DRAMs are limited. In about 10 years’ time the possibilities of further miniaturization with present technology will end. Currently, tiny circuits and transistors are etched onto metal films on top of silicon by using optical equipment.
Chips need to become smaller in order to become cheaper, faster and more energy-efficient.
New manufacturing technologies are needed to continue Moore’s Law, named after an observation of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who some 30 years ago accurately predicted that every dollar will buy double the amount of processing power every eighteen months.
Williams said the H-P technology, partly developed in conjunction with the Californian university UCLA, will move chip miniaturization “much faster than Moore’s Law.”
The H-P work also combined for the first time both memory and logic by manipulating molecules caught in a grid of superthin platinum and titanium wires.
A piece of logic is needed to address or look up specific bits of information, instead of checking all bits on a chip.
The memory H-P developed in the lab contains 64 bits of information. In this case, each bit was formed by one thousand molecules sandwiched between two sets of wires, one set running north-south, one set east-west.
At the junctions of the grid the molecules could be switched “on” or “off” by sending an electronic current through the platinum wires. Combinations of these “on” and “offs,” or “zeros” and “ones,” can store characters or instructions.
By sending a lower voltage current through the wires, the zeros and ones could be read.
“This is the first demonstration that molecular logic and memory can work together on the same nanoscale circuits,” said Williams. He spoke after discussing the experiments at a conference in Stockholm on Monday.
STAMP A CHIP
The researchers also proved they can use a previously invented technology to “stamp” the 64 bit memory from a mold or master. The memory was created on top of ordinary silicon used in today’s chip making production processes.
Today’s lithography chip production process takes many weeks, often months, to etch layer after layer of circuitry on top of silicon wafers. The “stamping” or “printing” method used by H-P scientists could dramatically reduce production time.
It took the researchers just a few minutes to “stamp” the memory. The memory they created is non-volatile, which means the molecules stay in their position, and retain their information, when the current is switched off.
Today only the more expensive memory chips, like flash memory, remember their information after power has been turned off. H-P thinks the first commercial memory products using the technology of stamping molecules will be used in devices that now use flash memory.
The little piece of 64-bit memory H-P molded from “smart” molecules does not yield a useable chip yet. Today’s standard DRAM memory chips used in most personal computers contains 256,000,000 bits of memory.
Challenges that are still to be addressed are low power consumption, mass-production and competing prices. H-P, which believes its technology could benefit the entire chip-making industry, believes it can overcome these issues.