A team of international scientists have found a way to make memory chips perform computing tasks, which is traditionally done by computer processors like those made by Intel and Qualcomm.
This means data could now be processed in the same spot where it is stored, leading to much faster and thinner mobile devices and computers.
This new computing circuit was developed by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) in collaboration with Germany’s RWTH Aachen University and Forschungszentrum Juelich, one of the largest interdisciplinary research centres in Europe.
It is built using state-of-the-art memory chips known as Redox-based resistive switching random access memory (ReRAM). Developed by global chipmakers such as SanDisk and Panasonic, this type of chip is one of the fastest memory modules that will soon be available commercially.
However, instead of storing information, NTU Assistant Professor Anupam Chattopadhyay in collaboration with Professor Rainer Waser from RWTH Aachen University and Dr Vikas Rana from Forschungszentrum Juelich showed how ReRAM can also be used to process data.
This discovery was published recently in Scientific Reports, a peer-reviewed journal under the prestigious Nature Publishing Group.
Current devices and computers have to transfer data from the memory storage to the processor unit for computation, while the new NTU circuit saves time and energy by eliminating these data transfers.
It can also boost the speed of current processors found in laptops and mobile devices by at least two times or more.
By making the memory chip perform computing tasks, space can be saved by eliminating the processor, leading to thinner, smaller and lighter electronics. The discovery could also lead to new design possibilities for consumer electronics and wearable technology.
How the new circuit works
Currently, all computer processors in the market are using the binary system, which is composed of two states – either 0 or 1. For example, the letter A will be processed and stored as 01000001, an 8-bit character.
However, the prototype ReRAM circuit built by Asst Prof Chattopadhyay and his collaborators processes data in four states instead of two. For example, it can store and process data as 0, 1, 2, or 3, known as Ternary number system.
Because ReRAM uses different electrical resistance to store information, it could be possible to store the data in an even higher number of states, hence speeding up computing tasks beyond current limitations.
Asst Prof Chattopadhyay who is from NTU’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, said in current computer systems, all information has to be translated into a string of zeros and ones before it can be processed.
“This is like having a long conversation with someone through a tiny translator, which is a time-consuming and effort-intensive process,” he explained. “We are now able to increase the capacity of the translator, so it can process data more efficiently.”
The quest for faster processing is one of the most pressing needs for industries worldwide, as computer software is getting increasingly complex while data centres have to deal with more information than ever.
The researchers said that using ReRAM for computing will be more cost-effective than other computing technologies on the horizon, since ReRAMs will be available in the market soon.
Prof Waser said, “ReRAM is a versatile non-volatile memory concept. These devices are energy-efficient, fast, and they can be scaled to very small dimensions. Using them not only for data storage but also for computation could open a completely new route towards an effective use of energy in the information technology.”
The excellent properties of ReRAM like its long-term storage capacity, low energy usage and ability to be produced at the nanoscale level have drawn many semiconductor companies to invest in researching this promising technology.
The research team is now looking to engage industry partners to leverage this important advance of ReRAM-based ternary computing.
Moving forward, the researchers will also work on developing the ReRAM to process more than its current four states, which will lead to great improvements of computing speeds as well as to test its performance in actual computing scenarios.
Being able to determine magnetic properties of materials with sub-nanometer precision would greatly simplify development of magnetic nano-structures for future spintronic devices. In an article published in Nature Communications Uppsala physicists make a big step towards this goal – they propose and demonstrate a new measurement method capable to detect magnetism from areas as small as 0.5 nm2.
Due to the ever-growing demand for more powerful electronic devices the next generation spintronic components must have functional units that are only a few nanometers large. It is easier to build a new spintronic device, if we can see it in a sufficient detail. This becomes more and more tricky with the rapid advance of nano-technologies, especially when we need not only an overall picture “how the thing looks”, but also know its physical properties at nano-scale. One of instruments capable of such detailed look is a transmission electron microscope.
Electron microscope is a unique experimental tool offering to scientists and engineers a wealth of information about all kinds of materials. Differently from optical microscopes, it uses electrons to study the materials, and thanks to that it achieves an enormous magnification. For example, in crystals one can even observe individual columns of atoms. Electron microscopes routinely provide information about structure, composition and chemistry of materials. Recently researchers found ways to use electron microscopes also for measuring magnetic properties. There, however, atomic resolution has not been reached so far.
A team of three physicists from Uppsala University – Ján Rusz, Jakob Spiegelberg and Peter Oppeneer, together with colleagues from Nagoya University (Japan) and Forschungszentrum Jülich (Germany) have developed and experimentally proven a new method, which allows to detect magnetism from individual atomic planes. The area of the sample, from which a magnetic signal was detected, is about a trillion (1012) times smaller than that of an average grain of sand.
‘The discovery of this method came from an unexpected result obtained from computer simulations. It was a surprise, which made us dig deeper into it. Thanks to the international collaboration our curious theoretical observation was soon after followed by an experimental confirmation’, says Ján Rusz.
A significant advantage of this new method is its ease of application. Modern transmission electron microscopes can apply the method right away, without any need of modifications or special equipment.
Finally Up and Running
Silicon-air batteries are viewed as a promising and cost-effective alternative to current energy storage technology. However, they have thus far only achieved relatively short running times. Jülich researchers have now discovered why.
In theory, silicon-air batteries have a much higher energy density and are also smaller and lighter than current lithium-ion batteries. They are also environmentally friendly and insensitive to external influences. Their most important advantage, however, is their material. Silicon is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust after oxygen: it is cheap and its reserves are practically inexhaustible.
It was founded on 11 December 1956 by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia as a registered association, before it became “Kernforschungsanlage Jülich GmbH” or Nuclear Research Centre Jülich in 1967. In 1990, the name of the association was changed to “Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbH”. It has close collaborations with RWTH Aachen in the form of Jülich-Aachen Research Alliance (JARA).
An international team of scientists constructs the first germanium-tin semiconductor laser for silicon chips
Scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland in cooperation with international partners have presented the first semiconductor consisting solely of elements of main group IV. As a consequence, the germanium-tin (GeSn) laser can be applied directly onto a silicon chip and thus creates a new basis for transmitting data on computer chips via light: this transfer is faster than is possible with copper wires and requires only a fraction of the energy. The results have been published in the journal Nature Photonics.
The transfer of data between multiple cores as well as between logic elements and memory cells is regarded as a bottleneck in the fast-developing computer technology. Data transmission via light could be the answer to the call for a faster and more energy efficient data flow on computer chips as well as between different board components. “Signal transmission via copper wires limits the development of larger and faster computers due to the thermal load and the limited bandwidth of copper wires. The clock signal alone synchronizing the circuits uses up to 30% of the energy – energy which can be saved through optical transmission,” explains Prof. Detlev Grützmacher, Director at Jülich’s Peter Grünberg Institute.
Some long-distance telecommunication networks and computing centres have been making use of optical connections for decades. They allow very high bandwidths even over long distances. Through optical fibres, signal propagation is almost lossless and possible across various wavelengths simultaneously: a speed advantage which increasingly benefits both micro- and nanoelectronics. “The integration of optical components is already well advanced in many areas. However, in spite of intensive research, a laser source that is compatible with the manufacturing of chips is not yet achievable,” according to the head of Semiconductor Nanoelectronics (PGI-9).
Future nanoelectronic information storage devices are also tiny batteries – astounding finding opens up new possibilities
Resistive memory cells (ReRAM) are regarded as a promising solution for future generations of computer memories. They will dramatically reduce the energy consumption of modern IT systems while significantly increasing their performance. Unlike the building blocks of conventional hard disk drives and memories, these novel memory cells are not purely passive components but must be regarded as tiny batteries. This has been demonstrated by researchers of Jülich Aachen Research Alliance (JARA), whose findings have now been published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications. The new finding radically revises the current theory and opens up possibilities for further applications. The research group has already filed a patent application for their first idea on how to improve data readout with the aid of battery voltage.
Conventional data memory works on the basis of electrons that are moved around and stored. However, even by atomic standards, electrons are extremely small. It is very difficult to control them, for example by means of relatively thick insulator walls, so that information will not be lost over time. This does not only limit storage density, it also costs a great deal of energy. For this reason, researchers are working feverishly all over the world on nanoelectronic components that make use of ions, i.e. charged atoms, for storing data. Ions are some thousands of times heavier that electrons and are therefore much easier to ‘hold down’. In this way, the individual storage elements can almost be reduced to atomic dimensions, which enormously improves the storage density.