03 April 2012

Transparent, flexible memory chips to replace flash?

A new type of memory chip that is transparent, flexible enough to be folded like a sheet of paper and capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 1,000ºF could replace flash in future keychain drives, smartphones and computers.

The breakthrough chips, developed by a team at Rice University in the US, are said to allow significantly more data to be stored in a given space due to their unique 3D internal architecture. According to the researchers, their transparency means that devices' screens could also serve as their memory.

"These new chips are really big for the electronics industry because they are now looking for replacements for flash memory," said James Tour, who led the research. "These new memory chips have numerous advantages over the chips today that are workhorses for data storage in hundreds of millions of flash, or thumb drives, smartphones, computers and other products. Flash has about another six or seven years in which it can be built smaller, but then developers hit fundamental barriers."

Because of the way that the new memory chips are configured, namely with two terminals per bit of information rather than the standard three terminals per bit, Tour says they are much better suited for 3D memory than flash drives.

"In order to put more memory into a smaller area, you have to stack components beyond two dimensions, which is what is currently available," he said. "You have to go to 3D. The chips also have a high on-off ratio, which is a measure of how much electrical current can flow in the chip when it stores information versus when it is empty. The higher the ratio, the more attractive the chips are to manufacturers."

The patented chips were originally composed of a layer of graphene or other carbon material on top of silicon oxide. The researchers originally thought that the capability of the chips was due to the graphene. They discovered recently however that the silicon oxide surface was actually making the memories, meaning they could make the chips graphene-free.

Tour believes the transparency and small size of the new chips will enable them to be used in a range of potential applications. Manufacturers could embed them in glass for see-through windshield displays for everyday driving, military and space uses, he said, so that not only is the display in the windshield, but also the memory.

Tour noted: "Current touchscreens are made of indium tin oxide and glass, both of which are brittle and can break easily. However, plastic containing the memory chips could replace those screens with the added bonuses of being flexible while also storing large amounts of memory, freeing up space elsewhere in a phone for other components that could provide other services and functions."

Tour and his team recently presented the research at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. He is now talking to manufacturers about embedding the chips into products.

Author
Laura Hopperton

Supporting Information

Websites
http://www.rice.edu/

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