Nanotubes & Memory

University researchers are trying to develop a nanodevice for data storage by using carbon nanotubes

November 26, 2008

3 Min Read
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University researchers have a long horizon, and they examine problems that won't affect our infrastructures, jobs, and lives for many years. Thanks goodness for that. It means there is a chance that there will be options and solutions when the problems become serious.

Take memory and storage. We all know that we need more and more of it. And we all want it to be smaller and faster and cheaper and easier to use and manage. That's a lot to ask, yet that's the way the human brain works -- we want it all.

It may not be impossible. As I wrote in a previous column, there is work going on in development labs and universities that explores fundamental technologies with the potential to transform business technology. In that column I highlighted work by the National Science Foundation in which a team of scientists has stored data for nearly two seconds in the nucleus of an atom. The NSF called it "ultimate miniaturization of computer memory" and a key step in the development of quantum computers. I also noted a report on "nanostructured storage domains," in which a team of German and Italian researchers were reportedly trying to increase storage capacity using nanopatterns of a spin-transition compound on silicon oxide chips. The development could lead the way to molecular storage media that stores data by "switching" the spin of electrons.

Now comes word from the University of Nottingham that researchers there are exploring ways of exploiting the unique properties of carbon nanotubes to create a cheap and compact memory cell that uses little power and writes information at high speeds.

A release issued by the university states that there may be a fundamental limit to how far we can shrink a transistor, since quantum phenomena may cause electrons to tunnel through the barriers between wires. To deal with these issues, a team from a wide range of university departments is working on a "nanodevices for data storage" project, which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The team is made up of researchers from the schools of chemistry, physics and astronomy, and pharmacy, and the Nottingham Nanotechnology and Nanoscience Centre.Their idea? Carbon nanotubes -- tubes made from rolled graphite sheets just one carbon atom thick. Here is how they describe the potential way nanotubes would work: "If one nanotube sits inside another -- slightly larger -- one, the inner tube will 'float' within the outer, responding to electrostatic, van der Waals and capillary forces. Passing power through the nanotubes allows the inner tube to be pushed in and out of the outer tube. This telescoping action can either connect or disconnect the inner tube to an electrode, creating the 'zero' or 'one' states required to store information using binary code. When the power source is switched off, van der Waals force -- which governs attraction between molecules -- keeps the inner tube in contact with the electrode. This makes the memory storage non-volatile, like Flash memory."

Says Dr. Elena Bichoutskaia, a professor in the school of chemistry, who is leading the study: "The electronics industry is searching for a replacement of silicon-based technologies for data storage and computer memory. Existing technologies, such as magnetic hard discs, cannot be used reliably at the sub-micrometer scale and will soon reach their fundamental physical limitations. In this project a new device for storing information will be developed, made entirely of carbon nanotubes and combining the speed and price of dynamic memory with the non-volatility of flash memory."

But wait, there's more. Not only could this radically change memory technology, but it also could be used to deliver drugs to individual cells and take the temperature of individual cells to tell which ones were cancerous, the university said.

I am encouraged that university researchers around the world are working on these issues, and have identified a number of potential ways of solving some fundamental problems. Better computer memory and a better way to deliver drugs and diagnose cancer -- that's pretty impressive.

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