RealTime IT News

Researchers Developing Plastic Memory Technology

Imagine a scenario where the memory stored in your digital camera or personal digital assistant is partially based one of the most flexible materials made by man: plastic.

Scientists at HP Labs and Princeton University are excited a new memory technology that could store more data and cost less than traditional silicon-based chips for mobile devices such as handheld computers, cell phones and MP3 players.

But this chip is different than silicon technologies such as the popular flash memory , the researchers said, because it's partially made of plastic in addition to a foil substrate and some silicon. And while flash memory can be rewritten, the new technology can be written to only once. But it can be read several times and retains data without power because it won't require a laser or motor to read or write.

The plastic polymer aspect of the new solution is known as PEDOT and it conducts electricity at low voltages, but operates as a semiconductor at higher voltages, said Craig Perlov, of HP Labs. The scientist told internetnews.com the new memory doesn't use transistors to store information as flash does. Instead, bits are written when a current passes through a polymer fuse, causing it to blow and change its conductivity.

"This is a novel concept for us because it involves applying a lower voltage to PEDOT to change its resistance to the conducting material," Perlov said. "This pushes it into a state of high resistance in which we can store the digital info ones and zeros."

In a technology first, neither vacuum chambers or high temperatures would be used to make the chip, so layers could be stacked atop each other. Instead, it is an aqueous liquid that is stored at room temperature, but no more than 100 degrees Celsius, allowing the scientists to stack it many layers deep.

"What is going to help us compete with the rewriteable memories is that we can make this very inexpensively," Perlov said. "As opposed to flash where we use the silicon wafer in a batch process to make devices, we're using the silicon wafer as a substrate where we put one layer at a time."

HP scientist Warren Jackson said simplifying the production of such memory chips is a key factor because it has the potential to lower the cost of memory use on a per megabyte basis for customers. However, this technology could potentially store more data than flash, and perhaps even become fast enough to store video, he said.

"This has the ability to work for a slightly different market than flash because we would now have the ability to not be able to write it a bunch of applications, but just read it so it becomes a permanent record.," Jackson told internetnews.com.

In one scenario, a PEDOT-based machine could solve the problem of virus hackers, who rely on the fact they cannot afford to leave a trace out of fear of being caught for their dirty work. With PEDOT-based solutions, Jackson and Perlov said hackers would not be able to erase their IP addresses. Instead of rewriting over existing data, PEDOT would just create a static section for incoming data.

Moreover, this could be favorable to companies concerned about compliance regulations such as HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley, ensuring that the integrity of data on documents is preserved over long periods of time, the scientists said.

According to research analysts, finding alternative sources of memory has become a popular research issue because flash memory is expected to reach serious limitations as the dimension demands on devices increasingly get smaller to host a variety of form factors. Smaller memory space means the transistors leak more electricity and suck up more power.

But Gartner research analyst Richard Gordon said engineering obstacles facing memory technologies stretch back 30-plus years and noted that just last week Intel announced a new transistor to take care of the leakage problem.

"Flash technology is currently at a process node of the .11 micron level," Gordon said "There is a roadmap to accommodate it for the next 10 years so it still has a long time to go before it runs out of steam. I don't see that changing unless there is a technology in terms of cost-per-bit and performance that blows flash out of the water."

While unique the concept of plastic, or polymer-based memory is not entirely alien. Rival chipmakers are also looking into polymer-based memory. Intel has a program to develop ferro-electric polymer memory. AMD recently bought Coatue, one of several companies working on polymer memory, including Thin Film Electronics. Intel has a stake in this Swedish company.