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Computer chips in for size breakthrough

world Updated: Aug 31, 2010 23:29 IST
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Scientists at Rice University and Hewlett-Packard are reporting they can overcome a fundamental barrier to the continued rapid miniaturization of computer memory that has been the basis for the consumer electronics revolution.

In recent years the limits of physics and finance faced by chip makers had loomed so large experts feared a slowdown in the pace of miniaturization that would act like a brake on the ability to pack ever more power into ever smaller devices like laptops, smartphones and digital cameras.

But the new announcements, along with competing technologies being pursued by companies like IBM and Intel,offer hope the brake will not be applied any time soon.

In one of the two new developments, Rice researchers are reporting in Nano Letters that they have succeeded in building reliable small digital switches — an essential part of computer memory — that could shrink to a significantly smaller scale than is possible using conventional methods.

More important, the advance is based on widely-used silicon oxide, easing a move toward commercialization. The scientists said PrivaTran, a Texas startup company, has made experimental chips using the technique that can store and retrieve information in vast quantities.

These chips store only 1,000 bits of data, but if the new technology fulfills the promise its inventors see, single chips that store as much as today’s highest capacity disk drives could be possible in five years.

Separately, HP is to announce on Tuesday that it will produce a related technology: memristors, or memory resistors, switches that retain information without a source of power.

Chip makers are now confronted by such severe physical and financial challenges that they are spending $4 billion or more for each new advanced chip-making factory.