HP makes breakthrough in computer memory

By Matthew Fordahl The Associated Press
Tuesday September 10, 2002

SAN JOSE — Using molecules as building blocks, Hewlett-Packard Co. researchers have created memory circuits 10 times more dense than today’s silicon chips under a process that could be faster and cheaper than current technology. 

The advance announced Monday could lead to more memory within a smaller space than what is now possible. 

“We believe molecular electronics will push advances in future computer technology far beyond the limits of silicon,” said R. Stanley Williams, director of Quantum Science Research at HP Labs. 

The high-tech industry’s growth has been driven by packing more transistors — or switches — into smaller slivers of silicon. Within the next decade, however, current technology is expected to reach physical limits. 

Researchers are looking for approaches that could continue the pace of innovation with silicon or alternatives. 

Williams, who presented his findings at a symposium for the 175th anniversary of the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, said the high-density memory his team created fits inside a square micron. That’s so small that 1,000 of the circuits could fit on the end of a strand of human hair. 

The memory is rewritable and can preserve information even after voltage is cut. The behavior is similar to today’s flash memory, commonly used in digital cameras, music players and cell phones to store information even after a device has been turned off. 

The difference is that the new memory could be much cheaper to make. 

Conventional semiconductor products are created by etching transistors into silicon by shining light onto light-sensitive chemicals. Williams’ approach is more akin to contact printing used in creating vinyl records — but at a very small scale. 

The masters were created in about a day. They were then pressed into a polymer layer on a silicon wafer, and then into a single layer of electronically switchable molecules on top of the silicon. 

“It took just a few minutes to make an imprint,” Williams said. 

Still, the technology is at least five years from being commercially available, Williams said. 

“Things are moving along faster than we anticipated,” he said. “Even given that, we’re just now demonstrating feasibility, and it’s a long way from feasibility to product.”