Plastic memory shows promise

New discoveries may lead to cheap, fast memories based on a common plastic

Researchers at Princeton University working with Hewlett-Packard have invented a new form of permanent computer memory that uses plastic, and may be much cheaper and faster than existing silicon circuits.

By utilising a previously unknown property of a cheap, transparent plastic called PEDOT -- short for polyethylenedioxythiophene -- the inventors say that data densities as high as a megabit per square millimetre should be possible. By stacking layers of memory, a cubic centimetre device could hold as much as a gigabyte and be cheap enough to compete with CDs and DVD.

PEDOT is an unusual plastic because it conducts electricity, a property that's led to it being used for antistatic coatings. However, a sufficiently large pulse of current changes it permanently to an unconducting state, just like a fuse. By putting microscopic pellets of the stuff between two grids of wires, data can be stored by blowing patterns of bits. The memory cannot be rewritten, but can be read very fast and with low power consumption.

The biggest challenge is developing production techniques. "We are hybridising," said the leader of the research group, Princeton professor of electrical engineering Stephen Forrest. "We are making a device that is organic -- the plastic polymer -- and inorganic -- thin-film silicon -- at the same time."

He said that developing the invention into a commercially viable product would require additional work on creating a large-scale manufacturing process and ensuring compatibility with existing electronic hardware, a process that might take as little as five years.

Other companies are also investigating organic, plastic memories. Intel has invested in ovonics, which uses the same material as CD-RW disks, as an alternative to reprogrammable flash memory. Originally bullish about its prospects, production difficulties have led the company to talk about a five-year timeline to shipping parts: it is also working with Thin Film Technologies of Sweden on a different polymer technology. Another company, Coatue, was absorbed into AMD before becoming part of a joint effort between AMD and Fujitsu for plastic memory development, FASL.

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