Scientists have built a tiny memory chip that uses new technology to pack a relatively large amount of information into a square about one-2,000th of an inch on a side.
Although the chip is modest in capacity — with 160,000 bits of information — the bits are crammed together so tightly that it is the densest chip ever made.
The achievement points to a possible path toward continuing the exponential growth of computing power even after current silicon chip-making technology hits fundamental limits in 10 to 20 years.
The scientists, led by James Heath of the California Institute of Technology and Fraser Stoddart of the University of California, Los Angeles, reported their findings in the issue of the journal Nature dated Thursday.
The density of bits on the chip — about 100 billion per square centimeter — is about 40 times that of current memory chips, Heath said. Improvements to the technique could increase the density by a factor of 10, he said.
As far back as 1999, Heath and Stoddart reported on aspects of their work, which included switches made of molecules and a novel technique for making ultrathin wires.
“Our goal always was to develop a manufacturing technique that works at the molecular scale,” said Heath, a professor of chemistry. “It’s a scientific demonstration, but it’s a sort of a stake in the ground.”
But Heath said he did not know if this technique would be commercially useful. “I don’t know if the world needs memory like this,” he said. “I do know if you can manufacture at these dimensions, it’s a fundamentally enabling capability.”
A critical component of the chip is its molecular switch, designed by Stoddart.
The switch, which belongs to a class of molecules known as rotaxanes, looks like a dumbbell with a ring that can slide along the central bar. Voltage pulses push the ring between two positions on the bar, which represent the zeros and ones used by computers to store data. The dumbbell shape keeps the ring from sliding off.
To build the chip, the researchers etched 400 parallel wires, each with of width of less than less than a millionth of an inch, or 0.000024 millimeters, and separated by about one-750,000th of an inch from its neighbors.
On top of the wires, they deposited a layer of the molecular switches, the dumbbells standing vertically, and then a second set of 400 wires turned 90 degrees to the first set.
Each crossing point between two perpendicular wires, with about 100 of the molecular switches wedged in between, is the storage location of one bit of information.
While many researchers are looking for ways to make molecular-size electronics, most are still building circuits containing only a handful of bits, compared with the 160,000 in the new chip.
Fuente: International Herald Tribune