IBM materials breakthrough could lead to human brain-like chips

IBM scientists found a way to power chips with ionic currents, streams of charged molecules that operate in an "event driven" way like the human brain.

IBM researchers have discovered a materials breakthrough that could lead to processors that use less power and operate the way a human brain does.

Silicon-based processors rely on electronics and voltage being ushered through a channel. These semiconductors, which power PCs, tablets and smartphones today, were thought under Moore's Law to double performance every two years with lower costs and size. However, new manufacturing techniques will be needed as Moore's Law hits physical limits.

IBM's discovery, published in the latest edition of Science, flips the current semiconductor manufacturing process. In a nutshell, IBM scientists found a way to power chips with ionic currents, streams of charged molecules that operate in an "event driven" way like the human brain. These processors would likely ride shotgun with silicon-based chips. 

A typical ionic liquid (IL) gated device showing the channel, the source and drain contacts, and the gate electrode with a droplet of the IL on top. Source: IBM



Dr. Stuart Parkin, a fellow at IBM Research, explained that his team's research replaced solid gate material in traditional chip processes with a family of liquids that hold its irregular shape at room temperature. "We think this could enable a new class of devices that operate on the flow of small ionic currents instead of electrons," he said. As a result, ionic current chips wouldn't have to be charged on and off like traditional silicon.

In IBM's research paper, the company's scientists explained the following process:

Researchers applied a positively charged ionic liquid electrolyte to an insulated oxide material and successfully converted the material to a conducting metal. The material held its metallic state until a negatively charged ionic liquid electrolyte was applied, to convert it back to its original, insulating state.

The research about metal to insulator transition materials has gone on for years, but IBM found that the removal and injection of oxygen molecules into metal oxides led to the state changes.

The IBM breakthrough wouldn't result in chips that would replace silicon, but create a new class of processors. "It's not a one to one comparison," said Parkin. New devices based on ionic currents would operate more slowly, but perform calculations with much more efficiency. Keep in mind the human brain doesn't run hot and ionic chips wouldn't either. "Our goal is to take inspiration from the human brain," said Parkin.


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