Researchers one step closer to 'bootless' computer

Lead scientist describes the technology as totally new concept that 'will essentially give memory some brains'

Physicists at the University of California, Riverside have made a breakthrough in developing a "spin computer," which would combine logic with nonvolatile memory, bypassing the need for computers to boot up.

The new transistor technology, which one lead scientist believes could become a reality in about five years, would reduce power consumption to the point where eventually computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices could remain on all the time.

The breakthrough came when scientists at UC Riverside successfully injected a spinning electron into a resistor material called graphene, which is essentially a very thin layer of graphite, just like you might find in a pencil. The graphene in this case is one atom thick.

The process is known as "tunneling spin injection." It involves laying down an electron in the graphene, which then represents a bit of data. By injecting multiple bits into the graphene, they can not only be stored in a nonvolatile state (without a need for electricity), but the data can be used for computations in the graphene itself.

tunneling spin injection
Top image shows flow of electrons (dotted line) when no insulator is used. Flow of electron spin polarization is greatly improved (bottom image) when a magnesium oxide insulator is used as shown. (Image credit: Kawakami Lab, UC Riverside)

If successful, the researchers will have created a chip that removes the I/O bottleneck created by the system bus between a computer's CPU and a mass storage device such as a hard drive or solid-state drive, also known as the von Neumann bottleneck.

One of the project's lead scientists, Roland Kawakami, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at UC Riverside, said the clock speeds of chips made using tunneling spin injection would be "thousands of times" faster than today's processors.

One of the major hurdles that remains involves finding a lower-power method to coax electrons into being flipped by a magnetic field, turning them into bits representing zeros or ones. Currently, the graphene spin technology requires more power than DRAM or SRAM to work, Kawakami said.

"If you can lower the energy needed, then you could lower the size of the supporting circuitry," Kawakami said. "What we're working on is a whole new concept. This will essentially give memory some brains."

The researchers also need to build out the circuitry. That will be the job of electrical engineers.

Kawakami's team has used a semiconductor laser to essentially free up electrons so they can be polarized and given a directional orientation, called "spin."

The electrons can either "spin up" or "spin down" and allow for more data storage than is possible with current electronics, according to the university. Once the electrons are polarized, they remain in place for the life of the chip, which in the case of graphene is practically an eternity.

"So it's the type of memory that can be very fast, and it can be very durable. You're moving atoms. There's not a large magnetic field," Kawakami said. "I'm one of those researchers that really cringes at the thought of saying this [new technology] can be useful. I think for us, maybe within five years we can get one device working."

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