This article has been reviewed according to Science X's editorial process and policies. Editors have highlighted the following attributes while ensuring the content's credibility:


peer-reviewed publication

trusted source


New type of computer memory could greatly reduce energy use and improve performance

New type of computer memory could greatly reduce energy use and improve performance
Cross-sectional TEM images and energy-dispersive x-ray measurements from high-angle annular dark-field scanning TEM for different thin films. (A) Pure HfOx deposited at 400°C. Clear crystallites are visible in the film; red arrows indicate some of the grain boundaries. (B) Pure HfOx deposited at 30°C. While these films are not polycrystalline like pure HfOx deposited at 400°C, neither are they as uniform as the composite films presented in (C). (C) The thin films which resulted in stable electrical performance are amorphous or nanocrystalline. Some pillar-like structures can be discerned, indicated by red arrows. The addition of Ba to the films clearly leads to material uniformity by suppressing crystallization. (D) High-angle annular dark-field scanning TEM (HAADF-STEM), zoomed in on some of the pillars. In addition, darker nanoparticles can be discerned throughout the films; four randomly chosen particles are marked by red circles. (E) HAADF-STEM image to indicate the area scanned for EDX and the elemental distribution of Hf and Ba. (F) Line scan EDX results acquired from the area indicated in (E). The dark areas in the HAADF-STEM image contain more Ba than the brighter ones. The ratio between Ba and Hf in the pillars is about 0.25 to 0.33, consistent with the Rutherford backscattering analysis discussed later. Credit: Science Advances (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adg1946

Researchers have developed a new design for computer memory that could both greatly improve performance and reduce the energy demands of internet and communications technologies, which are predicted to consume nearly a third of global electricity within the next ten years.

The researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, developed a device that processes data in a similar way as the synapses in the human brain. The devices are based on hafnium oxide, a material already used in the semiconductor industry, and tiny self-assembled barriers, which can be raised or lowered to allow electrons to pass.

This method of changing the in computer memory devices, and allowing and memory to exist in the same place, could lead to the development of computer memory devices with far greater density, higher performance and lower energy consumption. The results are reported in the journal Science Advances.

Our data-hungry world has led to a ballooning of energy demands, making it ever-more difficult to reduce carbon emissions. Within the next few years, , , algorithms and other data-driven technologies are expected to consume more than 30% of global electricity.

"To a large extent, this explosion in energy demands is due to shortcomings of current computer memory technologies," said first author Dr. Markus Hellenbrand, from Cambridge's Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. "In conventional computing, there's memory on one side and processing on the other, and data is shuffled back between the two, which takes both energy and time."

One potential solution to the problem of inefficient computer memory is a new type of technology known as resistive switching memory. Conventional memory devices are capable of two states: one or zero. A functioning resistive switching memory device however, would be capable of a continuous range of states— devices based on this principle would be capable of far greater density and speed.

"A typical USB stick based on continuous range would be able to hold between 10 and 100 times more information, for example," said Hellenbrand.

Hellenbrand and his colleagues developed a prototype device based on hafnium oxide, an that is already used in the semiconductor industry. The issue with using this material for resistive switching memory applications is known as the uniformity problem. At the , hafnium oxide has no structure, with the hafnium and oxygen atoms randomly mixed, making it challenging to use for memory applications.

However, the researchers found that by adding barium to thin films of hafnium oxide, some unusual structures started to form, perpendicular to the hafnium oxide plane, in the .

These vertical barium-rich 'bridges' are highly structured, and allow electrons to pass through, while the surrounding hafnium oxide remains unstructured. At the point where these bridges meet the device contacts, an energy barrier was created, which electrons can cross. The researchers were able to control the height of this barrier, which in turn changes the electrical resistance of the composite material.

"This allows multiple states to exist in the material, unlike conventional memory which has only two states," said Hellenbrand.

Unlike other , which require expensive high-temperature manufacturing methods, these hafnium oxide composites self-assemble at low temperatures. The composite material showed high levels of performance and uniformity, making them highly promising for next-generation memory applications.

A patent on the technology has been filed by Cambridge Enterprise, the University's commercialization arm.

"What's really exciting about these materials is they can work like a synapse in the brain: they can store and process information in the same place, like our brains can, making them highly promising for the rapidly growing AI and machine learning fields," said Hellenbrand.

The researchers are now working with industry to carry out larger feasibility studies on the materials, in order to understand more clearly how the high-performance structures form. Since is a material already used in the , the researchers say it would not be difficult to integrate into existing manufacturing processes.

More information: Markus Hellenbrand et al, Thin-film design of amorphous hafnium oxide nanocomposites enabling strong interfacial resistive switching uniformity, Science Advances (2023). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adg1946

Journal information: Science Advances

Citation: New type of computer memory could greatly reduce energy use and improve performance (2023, June 23) retrieved 4 October 2023 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Explore further

Exploring the properties of very thin hafnium dioxide


Feedback to editors