Thinking Tech

What might replace flash memory

Posting in Design

The idea, writes the journal ICT Results, is to sandwich a layer of "cells" that can carry or get rid of a charge between two plates of a conductor, at right angles.

Flash memory is one of those miracles of modern times most people can't imagine being replaced.

The SD card in your camera is driven by flash memory. So is the memory stick in your PC. Flash is what makes your iPod tinier than your finger, and it makes netbooks possible.

Unfortunately we are approaching the limits of what flash can do. Flash is based on a pure application of Moore's Law, the laying down of circuits on silicon through oxidation.

But what if you could make molecules themselves hold a charge, and discharge it on command?

That's the idea behind Versatile, an exploration of so-called "crossbar" memory being conducted by research institutes in Germany, Poland, Italy and Denmark, along with Numonyx, a Swiss-based memory company. (The picture above is from the home page of the Versatile project.)

The idea, writes the journal ICT Results, is to sandwich a layer of "cells" that can carry or get rid of a charge between two plates of a conductor, at right angles. The design is simple. The trick lies in aligning the materials and designing the diodes that are needed to build the devices, by moving bits in-and-out.

Most previous research focused on nickel oxide, but silicon diodes to connect them are impossible, due to the "low" manufacturing temperatures of less than 350 degrees Celcius. Instead, Versatile is looking at zinc oxide for the diodes.

Current prototypes just hold 10,000 cell, each 5 micrometers in diameter. The technology could be scaled to 12 megabytes, but the chips can also be stacked, enabling higher capacities. And the prototypes can be improved.

The smart takeaway from all this is that the limits we think of when it comes to Moore's Law don't exist in the real world. Even after we can no longer bring circuits closer together, the results of what Moore's Law have built can reach deeper into the material world, keeping the improvements going.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure