American boffins say they have made a significant step towards new chip technologies which could lead to faster, more durable non-volatile memory in place of RAM - and so to "instant-on" computing without boot-ups or hard disks.
The new research comes in the area of ferroelectrics, materials used today in so-called FeRAM or FRAM* - Ferroelectric Random Access Memory. FeRAM is a type of non-volatile memory used in smart cards and some portable devices. Compared to Flash, it offers many more read/write cycles before failure, much faster writing and lower power consumption.
FeRAM chips are structured much like ordinary DRAM, but use a ferroelectric material in place of the dielectric to achieve their unique features. Present-day FeRAM uses lead zirconate titanate (PZT) ferroelectric, and at present the technology suffers from low storage densities and high cost: hence its use mainly in low-capacity low-power devices requiring durability, like smartcards.
But now boffins funded by the US National Science Foundation have made a move to change that, depositing strontium titanate on silicon to achieve a new ferroelectric.
According to the NSF, this could lead to new, superior FeRAM chips able to replace both the RAM and the hard-disk or Flash storage used in most present-day computers. The FeRAM combo-memory would of course be non-volatile, unlike today's RAM, so there'd be no need to boot up or recover from hibernation after turning off the power: the machine would instantly switch on in just the same condition it had been on power-down. If the FeRAM also replaced the machine's storage, there'd never be any tiresome waiting for slow, power-hungry hard disks or Flash memory to do their stuff either.
The research was led by Darrell Schlom of Cornell Uni, with assistance from federal boffins - including some from NASA Ames - and others at Motorola and Intel.
It's not goodbye to RAM just yet, however, according to Schlom. He and his collaborators have shown that strontium-titanate components can be assembled, but there's still plenty to do.
"Several hybrid transistors have been proposed specifically with ferroelectrics in mind," said Schlom. "By creating a ferroelectric directly on silicon, we are bringing this possibility closer to realization."
*FRAM is specifically trademarked by Ramtron International.