New memory device resists rock melt and stores data at 1,112°F

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) have developed a new heat-resistant memory device that can operate at temperatures of up to 600 degrees Celsius, enough to melt even rock. This allows the device to be used in extremely challenging environments and could one day even power artificial intelligence (AI) on Venus.

Have you ever wondered why your smartphone stops working on a very sunny afternoon, but turns back on if you leave it in the shade for a while? The culprit here is memory, or rather, the material it is made of.

As the temperature rises, the electrons in the memory escape, leading to information loss and device failure. If there is too much heat, the device will never recover. This is why you won’t find memory devices near a jet engine or any device that could help run a spacecraft on Venus.

But that can change very quickly.

New non-volatile memory device

A research team led by Deep Jariwala and Roy Olsson, both associate professors in UPenn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, has developed a non-volatile memory (NVM) that does not fail when temperatures exceed 200 degrees Celsius.

NVM technology is not entirely new. It is used in storage devices such as flash memory, where information can be stored without active power. The heat-resistant nature of the new NVM comes from a material called ferroelectric aluminum scandium nitride (AlScN).

“The crystal structure of AlScN also causes it to have noticeably more stable and stronger bonds between atoms, meaning it is not only heat-resistant, but also quite durable,” says Dhiren Pradhan, a postdoctoral researcher in Jariwala and Olsson’s labs in a press release. “More specifically, the design and properties of our memory device enable rapid switching between electrical states, which is critical for high-speed data writing and reading.”

The device has a metal-insulator-metal structure with nickel and platinum electrodes and a 45 nm thin layer of AlScN, about 1,800 times thinner than an average human hair. It took the researchers months to achieve the thickness that would deliver memory performance at high temperatures but also not degrade with activity.

The researchers also demonstrated that the device undergoes one million read-write cycles and maintains a stable on-off ratio for more than six hours. According to them, both options are unprecedented for an NVM.

AI on Venus

Artificial intelligence
Inefficiencies in computer architecture are highlighted by the explosion of data that must be processed to build AI models. Image credit: Panuwat Sikham/iStock

The new device is also structurally compatible with high-temperature silicon carbide devices designed for extreme temperature applications. In addition to building a device that can work for extraterrestrial exploration, the researchers are confident it can fill gaps in existing computer architectures.

For example, separating a processing unit and memory is inefficient because data must travel between these components. This can lead to a bottleneck, as is the case today with the massive amounts of data processed to develop AI models.

“The stability of our memory device could enable tighter integration of memory and processing, improving the speed, complexity and efficiency of computing. We call this ‘memory-enhanced compute’ and are working with other teams to pave the way for AI in new environments,” said Jariwala in the press release.

Developing AI models in alien environments is therefore not outside the scope of this device.

The research results have been published in the journal Natural electronics.

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ABOUT THE EDITORIAL

Ameya Paleja Ameya is a science writer based in Hyderabad, India. A molecular biologist through and through, he traded in the micropipette to write about science during the pandemic and doesn’t want to go back. He enjoys writing about genetics, microbes, technology and public policy.

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