Transparent, flexible '3-D' memory chips may be the next big thing in small memory devices

March 28, 2012, American Chemical Society
A flexible, transparent memory chip created by researchers at Rice University. Credit: Credit: Tour Lab/Rice University

New memory chips that are transparent, flexible enough to be folded like a sheet of paper, shrug off 1,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures — twice as hot as the max in a kitchen oven — and survive other hostile conditions could usher in the development of next-generation flash-competitive memory for tomorrow’s keychain drives, cell phones and computers, a scientist reported today.

Speaking at the 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, he said devices with these chips could retain data despite an accidental trip through the drier — or even a voyage to Mars. And with a unique 3-D internal architecture, the new chips could pack extra gigabytes of data while taking up less space.

“These new chips are really big for the electronics industry because they are now looking for replacements for flash memory,” said James M. Tour, Ph.D., who led the research team. “These new memory chips have numerous advantages over the chips today that are workhorses for data storage in hundreds of millions of flash, or thumb drives, smart phones, computers and other products. Flash has about another six or seven years in which it can be built smaller, but then developers hit fundamental barriers.”

Because of the way that the new memory chips are configured, namely with two terminals per bit of information rather than the standard three terminals per bit, they are much better suited for the next revolution in electronics — 3-D memory — than flash drives.

“In order to put more memory into a smaller area, you have to stack components beyond two dimensions, which is what is currently available,” he said. “You have to go to 3-D.” And the chips have a high on-off ratio, which is a measure of how much electrical current can flow in the chip when it stores information versus when it is empty. The higher the ratio, the more attractive the chips are to manufacturers.

The chips were originally composed of a layer of graphene or other carbon material on top of silicon oxide, which has long been considered an insulator, a passive component in electronic devices. Graphene is a thin layer of carbon atoms that’s touted as a “miracle material” because it is the thinnest and strongest known material. It was even the topic of a recent Nobel Prize. Originally, the researchers at Rice University thought that the amazing memory capability of the chips was due to the graphene. They discovered recently that they were wrong. The silicon oxide surface was actually making the memories, and now they can make them graphene-free. The work was done by Tour’s group in collaboration with Professor Douglas Natelson (Department of Physics) and Lin Zhong (Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering). The main students on the project were Jun Yao and Javen Lin.

The transparency and small size of the new chips enables them to be used in a wide range of potential applications. Manufacturers could embed them in glass for see-through windshield displays for everyday driving, military and space uses so that not only is the display in the windshield, but also the memory. That frees up space elsewhere in the vehicle for other devices and functionalities. In fact, the chips were onboard a recent Russian Progress 44 cargo spacecraft in August 2011 for further experimentation aboard the International Space Station. However, the vehicle never made it into space and crashed. “The spacecraft crashed over Siberia, so our chips are in Siberia!” said Tour. He hopes to send the chips on a future mission in July 2012 to see how the memory holds up in the high-radiation environment of space.

Current touch screens are made of indium tin oxide and glass, both of which are brittle and can break easily. However, plastic containing the memory chips could replace those screens with the added bonuses of being flexible while also storing large amounts of memory, freeing up space elsewhere in a phone for other components that could provide other services and functions. Alternatively, storing memory in small chips in the screen instead of within large components inside the body of a phone could allow manufacturers to make these devices much thinner.

The easy-to-fabricate are patented, and Tour is talking to manufacturers about embedding the chips into products.

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not rated yet Mar 28, 2012
Does anyone here know more about this? I'm curious about the performance specs, but don't see any in the article.
not rated yet Mar 28, 2012
I don't think they ever mention the potential memory density compared to flash. Do thumb drives go up 10x in capacity?
1 / 5 (2) Mar 28, 2012
A figure of 50nSec is mentioned in the video, sounds like a smart guy, appears to know his stuff well and likewise articulate it well too, can infer a lot of tangential possibilities by his underwhelming passion ;-)

I would like to know about addressability for tight packing.
Also potentially linking with pixels re static displays.
It may also be feasible to add it to a gate control for various fets in terms of low power switch control where the switches recall their previous states, lots of static & processing apps !

Would be an interesting 'back of the envelope' exercise to have this as a SSD type memory (if at least as backup) as part of the plastic LED light diffusion panel in tablets and laptops...

I like this approach a lot, wish i did more sold-state physics when I did electronics so long ago,

Some pictures of the mechanism would of interest as I understand 5nm is prob the circle dia in which a filament forms but at what acceptable minimum thicknesses ?

not rated yet Mar 28, 2012
It does need to be fast, it just needs massive parallel running so that huge bandwidths of access make it appear to be fast.
not rated yet Mar 28, 2012
It could get its usage in the "smart packaging" technology - for example the etiquette of beer or wine bottle could keep whole production history, information about location and storage conditions of individual bottle, results of chemical analysis etc. Theoretically we can expect the production of single-use displays, in which whole movie will be stored inside of thin sheet of this display itself. Because no media will be stored and handled separately, it could eliminate the piracy and unlicensed media distribution in the similar way, like the using of vinyl plates.
not rated yet Mar 29, 2012
Neat-o! A clear plastic sheet computer, storage, display, coming to a future near you!
not rated yet Mar 29, 2012
he said devices with these chips could retain data despite an accidental trip through the drier or even a voyage to Mars.

Damn...and I just made that accidental trip to Mars. If I'd only had these gizmos with me.

I like this approach a lot, wish i did more sold-state physics when I did electronics so long ago,

That wouldn't have helped. I'm out of uni a little over ten years now and my knowledge of EE from back then in some areas is seriously dated.

Especially when it comes to transitors, memory, and display technology. Plasma and OLEDs were at the first prototype stage. Tunnel FETs were a neat idea (but not much more). MRAM was barely a concept and flash memory still an uncertain technology.

And graphene wasn't even on the scene.

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