Physicists create new 3D microchip

January 30, 2013
Nature cover. Credit: Image by LindenArtWork

Scientists from the University of Cambridge have created, for the first time, a new type of microchip which allows information to travel in three dimensions. Currently, microchips can only pass digital information in a very limited way - from either left to right or front to back. The research was published today, 31 January, in Nature.

Dr Reinoud Lavrijsen, an author on the paper from the University of Cambridge, said: "Today's chips are like bungalows – everything happens on the same floor. We've created the stairways allowing information to pass between floors."

Researchers believe that in the future a 3D microchip would enable additional storage capacity on chips by allowing information to be spread across several layers instead of being compacted into one layer, as is currently the case.

For the research, the Cambridge scientists used a special type of microchip called a spintronic chip which exploits the electron's tiny or 'spin' (unlike the majority of today's chips which use charge-based ). Spintronic chips are increasingly being used in computers, and it is widely believed that within the next few years they will become the standard memory chip.

To create the microchip, the researchers used an called 'sputtering'. They effectively made a club-sandwich on a of cobalt, platinum and ruthenium atoms. The cobalt and platinum atoms store the digital information in a similar way to how a stores data. The ruthenium atoms act as messengers, communicating that information between neighbouring layers of cobalt and platinum. Each of the layers is only a few atoms thick.

They then used a called MOKE to probe the data content of the different layers. As they switched a magnetic field on and off they saw in the MOKE signal the data climbing layer by layer from the bottom of the chip to the top. They then confirmed the results using a different .

Professor Russell Cowburn, lead researcher of the study from the Cavendish Laboratory, the University of Cambridge's Department of Physics, said: "Each step on our spintronic staircase is only a few atoms high. I find it amazing that by using nanotechnology not only can we build structures with such precision in the lab but also using advanced laser instruments we can actually see the data climbing this nano-staircase step by step.

"This is a great example of the power of advanced materials science. Traditionally, we would use a series of electronic transistors to move data like this. We've been able to achieve the same effect just by combining different basic elements such as cobalt, platinum and ruthenium. This is the 21st century way of building things – harnessing the basic power of elements and materials to give built-in functionality."

Explore further: Researchers grow nanowire crystals for 3-D microchips

More information: The paper 'Magnetic ratchet for 3-dimensional spintronic memory and logic' will be published in the 31 January 2013 edition of Nature:

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5 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2013
To understand the problem of stacking microchips in three dimensions, you have to remember that even the single layer of a microchip isn't really two-dimensional. The components that are etched and added on the surface protrude out like a city with streets and bridges and elevated roadways, and building blocks of varying heights.

Adding another layer on top would be like dropping another set of streets and buildings on top of an existing city.

It seems that here they did something completely different and made stacked two dimensional layers with some sort of global effect (magnetic field) that shifts the data from layer to layer. What isn't explained is, how do you use it to create the functionality of the ordinary microchip that has logic gates and flip-flops and data busses to do something useful.
4 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2013
The stacking of chips in 3D doesn't solve the problem with removal of the waste heat from chip, which is the limiting factor of CPU power by now.
not rated yet Jan 30, 2013
Spintronics have an inherent advantage in power dissipation.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2013
The stacking of chips in 3D doesn't solve the problem with removal of the waste heat from chip

They're using spiontronics (flipping of neighboring spin states) instead of moving charges. This causes much less heat buildup.
NEC showed spintronic CAM memory in 2011 which is non-volatile (i.e. no need to refresh - so no further/constant power requirements once a memory cell is written)

What isn't explained is, how do you use it to create the functionality of the ordinary microchip that has logic gates

There's various ways (e.g. magnetic tunnel junctions or spin wave interference)

not rated yet Jan 30, 2013
Spinotronics have an inherent advantage in power dissipation.
It's bulky technology, which still doesn't provide both high speed, both very high level of integration.

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