IBM researchers in Zurich have demonstrated a single molecule device capable of repeatedly storing and retrieving data.
Described in a paper published in the 4 August issue of nanotech journal Small, the device is a surprisingly simple organic compound that can be set to high or low resistance through electrical pulses. In the lab, it reliably retained its ability to change states over many hours and more than 500 tests, which the researchers described in the paper as "a remarkable result for a single-molecule system".
"Right now, we are concentrating on understanding the relationship between the design of the molecular system and the electrical properties measured", researcher Dr Heike Riel told ZDNet UK. "Our next steps are to investigate the mechanism responsible for switching".
The molecule at the heart of the system, BPDN-DT (click here to see it), was designed by Professor James M Tour and co-workers at Rice University in Houston, US, and is one of a class of compounds called Tour wires. Although it was specifically synthesised to operate in this and other devices — it has also been used in a single molecule transistor — there is still considerable debate as to how it works and what characteristics any potential commercial application may have.
"The maximum switching speed depends very much on the mechanism which is used for switching," Dr Riel said. "The switching time is at least faster than 640 microseconds. However, we cannot give an upper limit yet." She said that this would depend on future investigations into how it worked, and that tests done on a similar molecule conclusively narrow the active area of the device down to a very specific area.
The experiment itself mounted the molecule between two gold electrodes that could be adjusted to sub-picometre accuracy. Although most of the testing took place under extremely cold conditions, some results showed that the molecule continued to switch states at room temperature — although, as the gold was then much softer, it flowed and short-circuited after a few cycles.
At around 1.5nanometres (nm) long, the molecule is less than one-hundredth of the size of current silicon memory elements. It is widely accepted in the industry that current progress in silicon will become economically more difficult below 20nm, with fundamental physical limits being reached below 10nm. IBM says it sees molecular computing as one way of pushing past this barrier, as well as semiconducting wires, carbon nanotubes and spintronics.