Researchers develop memory that never forgets

A new computer memory technology could make rebooting your computer a thing of the past, and may allow PC users to transfer and download large files in seconds rather than hours.

A new high-speed, high-capacity computer memory technology could make rebooting your computer a thing of the past, and may allow PC users to transfer and download large files in a few seconds, rather than hours.

Researchers at the University of Houston developed and patented the memory technology, and have announced that Sharp has exclusively licensed the technology. UH researchers are working with Sharp’s subsidiary, Sharp Laboratories of America, to develop commercial applications.

‘With current computers, if you turn the power off and then turn it back on, you lose whatever you haven’t saved, and you have to reboot, or restart, your system,’ said Alex Ignatiev, director of the Texas Centre for Superconductivity and Advanced Materials at the University of Houston. ‘Our type of memory is non-volatile, which means if you turn the power off, everything is still there. You turn your computer back on and it’s right where you left off.’

The UH researchers have fabricated and tested individual thin film memory elements made of perovskite. The elements can be electrically programmed to change their resistance, becoming more or less resistive to the passage of electricity. Ignatiev said a commercial memory product using this material would incorporate many thousands or millions of such elements arranged in an array resulting in a resistive memory chip, which would be made to be compatible with current PCs.

This new resistive memory technology may be the next generation of mainstream computer memory, said Victor Hsu, director of the integrated circuits process technology laboratory at Sharp Laboratories of America.

‘Once integrated into a computer, this type of memory could be ideal for multimedia and broadband applications, allowing PC users to download information from the Internet at very high speeds, and allowing much faster processing of high-volume information such as video and graphics,’ Hsu said. ‘We believe once it is fully developed into a commercial chip it will be less expensive than current memory technology.’

Current PCs have two basic kinds of memory. Random access memory (RAM), is the active memory, controlled by computer chips that allows users to run programs, open files and process data. RAM does not, however, save information if power is turned off. Mass memory storage, such as the hard drive, permanently stores files and data but operates slowly. Ignatiev said the new resistive random access memory technology could theoretically replace both kinds of memory.

‘This resistive memory is a constant, permanent memory, but it’s fluid as well, capable of rapidly storing information of any kind in a non-volatile way,’ he said. ‘And it’s all electronic, with no mechanical parts such as those used in hard drives to read and store data.’

In developing the technology, Ignatiev and his UH colleagues Shangquing Liu and Naijuan Wu worked with very thin films of perovskite oxides called manganites. When these thin films are exposed to electrical pulses their resistive properties can be rapidly changed, becoming more or less resistive to the passage of electricity. In other words, their resistance can be programmed, Ignatiev said.

The UH researchers reportedly capitalised on the perovskite’s unique resistive properties and developed an electrical switching process so that the material could be used to store and retrieve bits of information.