Faster, smaller, greener computers, capable of processing information up to 1,000 times faster than currently available models, could be made possible by replacing silicon with materials that can switch back and forth between different electrical states.
The present size and speed limitations of computer processors and memory could be overcome by replacing silicon with 'phase-change materials' (PCMs), which are capable of reversibly switching between two structural phases with different electrical states – one crystalline and conducting and the other glassy and insulating – in billionths of a second.
Modelling and tests of PCM-based devices have shown that logic-processing operations can be performed in non-volatile memory cells using particular combinations of ultra-short voltage pulses, which is not possible with silicon-based devices.
In these new devices, logic operations and memory are co-located, rather than separated, as they are in silicon-based computers. These materials could eventually enable processing speeds between 500 and 1,000 times faster than the current average laptop computer, while using less energy. The results are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The processors, designed by researchers from the University of Cambridge, the Singapore A*STAR Data-Storage Institute and the Singapore University of Technology and Design, use a type of PCM based on a chalcogenide glass, which can be melted and recrystallized in as little as half a nanosecond (billionth of a second) using appropriate voltage pulses.
The calculations performed by most computers, mobile phones and tablets are carried out by silicon-based logic devices. The solid-state memory used to store the results of such calculations is also silicon-based. "However, as demand for faster computers continues to increase, we are rapidly reaching the limits of silicon's capabilities," said Professor Stephen Elliott of Cambridge's Department of Chemistry, who led the research.
The primary method of increasing the power of computers has previously been to increase the number of logic devices which they contain by progressively reducing the size of the devices, but physical limitations for current device architectures mean that this is quickly becoming nearly impossible to continue.
Currently, the smallest logic and memory devices based on silicon are about 20 nanometres in size – approximately 4000 times thinner than a human hair - and are constructed in layers. As the devices are made ever smaller in order to increase their numbers on a chip, eventually the gaps between the layers will get so small that electrons which are stored in certain regions of flash non-volatile memory devices will be able to tunnel out of the device, resulting in data loss. PCM devices can overcome this size-scaling limit since they have been shown to function down to about two nanometres.