Will the next generation memory chips be made of silicon oxide, not carbon?

Rice University researchers think silicon oxide circuits could be the foundation for next generation memory chips.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

There's a reason why you can store what seems like a gazillion songs and pictures on your smart phone. The gadget has an incredible memory in its inner core.

But there's a limit to the development of electronic memory. Computer experts worry that we might reach that limit in five years.

It turns out, a chip made from silicon dioxide can store more information than a flash drive. As a bonus, this method does not require any carbon.

Rice University chemists discovered that silicon dioxide can actually store information in the breaks in its crystal structure. Eventually, the researchers hope the nanocrystals can be used to create 3-D storage devices, which would severely cut the cost of electronics.

It wasn't easy for graduate student Jun Yao to prove that building a silicon oxide circuit was even possible. When Yao was looking for a graphite replacement, nothing could properly charge the circuit.

However, Yao got rid of carbon and instead, used silicon oxide next to silicon terminals. The student found that the silicon oxide nanowire performed just as well as the graphite device. The silicon oxide nanowire only had two terminals, which didn't require it to hold a charge.

"I've been told by industry that if you're not in the 3-D memory business in four years, you're not going to be in the memory business. This is perfectly suited for that," Rice professor James Tour said in a statement.

Flash memory is expected to hit a wall when it gets down to the 20 nanometer scale.

That's why the Rice researchers' technique looks promising — it's a proof of concept that it can be used to build 10 nanometer circuits.

And the best part is that the chemistry is rather simple.

A Texas based company called RivaTran is working with the lab on a number of projects. According to a statement, the projects are supported by the:

  • Army Research Office
  • National Science Foundation
  • Air Force Office of Scientific Research
  • Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command
  • Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)
  • Small Business Technology Transfer program

Whether or not this discovery can break the memory barrier and help computer chips continue to shrink remains to be seen.

However, not everyone is convinced silicon oxide circuits are the way to go. The New York Times reports that I.B.M and Intel are looking at phase-change memory.

Photos: Jun Yao/Rice University

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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