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Instant-on computers a little closer to reality

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A new breakthrough in the lab could hasten the development of computers that power on instantly, making the phrase "waiting for my computer to boot up" a thing of the past.

When you add up all the minutes you've spent waiting for a computer to boot up over your lifetime, you could probably fit in several extra nights' sleep.

But frustrated computer users will cheer a breakthrough that could hasten the development of instant-on computers: Basically, a type of material used in "smart" ATM, subway and fuel cards has now been successfully incorporated onto the kind of material used in a computer chip.

While it may seem backward that a technology already available in cutting-edge subway cards is still not in computers, this breakthrough is something scientists have been trying to achieve for more than half a century, the National Science Foundation press release said. It added:

Besides reducing the waiting time for everyday computer users, the discovery could pave the way for memory devices that are lower power, higher speed, and more convenient to use. The materials may also help prevent losses from power outages.

For a little background, here's a quick primer on memory. There are the kinds of memory we have traditionally in computers, which can require power or have moving parts. Both of these characteristics increase the amount of time it takes to use the computer -- either to regain memory after a period of being powered down, or to move the parts in order to access the information on them.

Then, there's something called solid-state memory, which doesn't need power and doesn't have moving parts. That means it offers quick access to anything stored there, because there's no lag time between turning the memory on or moving the parts and being able to access the information stored on it. Flash drives and some fast computers and laptops like the Macbook Air and Google Chromebook use solid-state memory too, but they're still the exception, not the rule.

The new development could lead to something even faster than this solid-state memory. Those "smart" subway, ATM and fuel cards use something called ferroelectric materials, which provide low-power, high-efficiency electronic memory. Stores are already using the technology to replace bar codes in order to track all products in their stores.

In the breakthrough this week, scientists gave silicon, the material commonly used in computer chips, ferroelectric capability. (Basically, they grafted a film of strontium titanate onto silicon.) If they get this development out of the lab and into computer chips, this could lead to computers even faster than the seven-seconds-to-bootup Chromebook.

photo: Left: The arrangement between atoms of a film of strontium titanate and single crystal of silicon on which it was made. When sufficiently thin, strontium titanate can be strained to become ferroelectric. Right: The model at left has been written into the strontium titanate/silicon film utilizing the ability of a ferroelectric to store data. (D. Schlom/Cornell University)

via: Technology Review, Research.gov

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure