New research could pave the way for advanced, multifunctional computer chips


New research by a team from Oak Ridge Laboratory (ORNL) shows that certain complex materials are capable of self-organizing themselves into electrical circuits, at micro- and nanoscales. The breakthrough, the scientists believe, could usher in a new generation of microprocessors that are significantly more efficient than currently available silicon-based computer chips.

Recently published in the Advanced Electronic Materials journal, the study reveals that crystal complex oxides have been found to behave like multi-component integrated circuits, especially at microscopic and nanoscopic levels. This feature, according to the researchers, arises from the phenomenon known as phase separation, as result of which tiny areas in these materials often come to possess completely different magnetic and electronic properties. Speaking about the project, Zac Ward of Department of Energy’s ORNL said:

Within a single piece of material, there are coexisting pockets of different magnetic and/or electronic behaviors. What was interesting in this study was that we found we can use those phases to act like circuit elements. The fact that it is possible to also move these elements around offers the intriguing opportunity of creating rewritable circuitry in the material.

Thanks to phase separation, nanoscale regions of such complex oxides function as self-organized circuits. Given that phases in general respond to changes in electrical and magnetic fields, the material’s behavior can be controlled in different ways. This, the scientists believe, could in turn pave the way for new, more advanced computer chips. Ward added:

It’s a new way of thinking about electronics, where you don’t just have electrical fields switching off and on for your bits. This is not going for raw power. It’s looking to explore completely different approaches towards multifunctional architectures where integration of multiple outside stimuli can be done in a single material.

As pointed out by the team, phase separation could allow researchers to develop multifunctional microprocessors that can easily take the place of today’s silicon-based chips. Unlike the latter’s “one-chip-fits-all” nature, the newly-created contraption could handle multiple inputs and outputs, depending upon the specific application. The researchers explained:

Typically you would need to link several different components together on a computer board if you wanted access to multiple outside senses. One big difference in our work is that we show certain complex materials already have these components built in, which may cut down on size and power requirements.

As part of the research, the team has already demonstrated the technique on a particular material known as LPCMO. According to them, however, using other phase-separated materials would allow them to tap into a bunch of different properties. Ward went on to say:

The new approach aims to increase performance by developing hardware around intended applications. This means that materials and architectures driving supercomputers, desktops, and smart phones, which each have very different needs, would no longer be forced to follow a one-chip-fits-all approach.

Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

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