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, reports the New York Times. 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, smart phones, and digital cameras. But the new announcements, along with competing technologies being pursued by companies like IBM and Intel, offer hope that the brake will not be applied any time soon. 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. Separately, HP is to announce 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. HP 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 electronics market research company Envisioneering Group. “When you get down to these scales, you’re talking about the ability to store hundreds of movies on a single chip.”
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