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UK-Japan team develops ‘atom-scale’ switches for revolutionary low-power computer processor

27 June 2011 Southampton, University of

Revolutionary low-power logic systems that will perform instant on/off logic operations are being developed by research scientists at the University of Southampton in partnership with the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), Japan, and Hitachi Cambridge Laboratory.

The three-year UK-Japan project, which is co-led by Professor Hiroshi Mizuta of ECS-Electronics and Computer Science at Southampton, and Dr Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Atomic Electronics Group, NIMS, aims to build the world’s first non-volatile logic systems based on three-terminal atom transistors hybridized with nano-electro-mechanical (NEMS) switches.

The new device will initially become available as an integrated logic-memory chip so that it can be used in portable devices. As a result of this memory retention capacity, devices such as computers and mobile phones will become smaller and lighter.

According to Dr Harold Chong of Southampton’s Nano Research Group, the new device is being developed to address the fact that modern computer chips are using an increasing amount of power. "In fact, research has shown that the temperature of chips can be as hot as the surface of the sun," he said.

To reduce power usage, the researchers are aiming to increase the non-volatile part of the memory which is contained on the computer chip. The logic behind this is that if the non-volatile memory is expanded, then it will not be necessary to apply large amounts of power to the chip in order for it to retain information in its memory.

“There will be huge benefits from the cooperation between the Southampton and NIMS teams,” said Professor Mizuta. “We will be cooperating closely in overcoming current technological bottlenecks and accelerating the development of novel non-volatile logic devices. which have not been yet achieved with other approaches.”

The project aims to realise the world’s first low-power and non-volatile logic system based on three-terminal metal oxide atom transistors hybridised with nano-electro-mechanical devices. A key feature of this system will be an “on/off” switch operated by a suspended nanobeam which moves up and down when activated by voltage and results in an instant powering of the computer with no time lag.

“The ‘instant’ nature of this switch means that it only needs a few pico watts per transistor resulting in very low power requirements,” said Dr Chong. “There is potentially very low leakage in this device resulting in portable computing equipments that will be lighter and more powerful. This technology will also relieve the bottleneck in information processing, which at the moment is clogged up on its own memory.”

The research is funded by the Engineering and Physical Research Council’s strategic UK-Japan cooperative program with Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST).

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