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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Breakthrough Could Yield Instant-On Computers

Ferroelectric materials, already common in RFID chips, are wedded to silicon for the first time.

  • November 11, 2011

As the Google Chromebook, MacBook Air and a host of other laptops that incorporate solid state drives amply demonstrated, replacing hard drives with the same kind of flash memory present in thumb drives and memory cards can radically reduce the time it takes a computer to boot up. Now researchers at a trio of NSF-supported Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers have demonstrated the tantalizing possibility of an even faster kind of solid-state memory.

The arrangement between atoms of a film of strontium titanate and single crystal of silicon on which it was made. Credit: D. Schlom

Ferroelectric materials can already be found in everything with an RFID chip—which includes the kind of smart cards common in Europe, more advanced subway card systems like those in D.C. and Boston, and those easy pay key fobs you can use at the gas station. In these applications they work well, but they had yet to be incorporated into honest-to-goodness silicon computer chips until the most recent discovery.

I’m not sure I can put it any better than Research.gov, on account of I don’t completely understand what was accomplished:

Researchers led by Cornell University materials scientist Darrell Schlom deposited strontium titanate onto silicon. Strontium titanate is a normally non-ferroelectric variant of the ferroelectric material used in smart cards. Silicon is the principal component of most semiconductors and integrated circuits. Schlom’s method forced the silicon to squeeze the strontium titanate into a ferroelectric state.

The takeaway: ferroelectric materials are already making their way into things like ferroelectric ram, which is faster than conventional Flash memory but, at this point, not nearly as information dense. If ferroelectric ram is any guide to the performance of this new kind of ferroelectric material, we could someday see solid state memory that’s even faster than Flash.

In other words: going from the Chromebook’s legendary 7-second boot time to something approaching “instant on.”

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