Researchers in California said they have created the world's densest memory circuit, one that's about 100 times denser than today's standard memory circuits, while remaining as small as a human white blood cell.
Scientists from the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Los Angeles, reported the development in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
The circuit has 160,000 bits of capacity, compared with previous generations of molecular circuits that were demonstrated at 64 bits.
But researchers point to the circuit's density as the real breakthrough: 100 billion bits per square centimeter, which the researchers said is about 100 times more tightly packed than current memory circuits.
"As the semiconductor industry moves forward, they're always making things smaller and smaller, and according to their own projections, just a few years from now they're manufacturing approach will run out of steam," said Caltech chemistry professor James Heath, who authored the research with J. Fraser Stoddart at UCLA. "What we did is leapfrogged that and developed another approach."
Technology experts said the new circuit shows the potential for making integrated circuits at increasingly smaller sizes. Although still at least a decade away from mass production, outside experts say, the circuit could spur companies to create new manufacturing technologies to squeeze more circuitry onto ever-smaller devices.
Martin Reynolds, vice president and research fellow at Gartner Inc., said Hewlett-Packard Co. researchers demonstrated similar technology in 2002, but at 64 bits.
The Caltech and UCLA researchers demonstrated a similar technology the same year, and HP and the university researchers have worked together on developing a manufacturing approach and architecture, but the projects were separate.
The latest development, Reynolds said, shows development progressing from research into something manufacturable.
Reynolds added that the latest research shows the technology is advancing more quickly than Moore's Law, the 1965 observation by Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years.
"It's like adding an extra floor to your house — it's a way to get more memory," Reynolds said.
The researchers described the 160,000 memory bits as being arranged like a large tic-tac-toe board, with 400 silicon wires crossed by 400 titanium wires and a layer of molecular switches in between.
Each bit is just 15 nanometers wide, compared with the most dense memory devices currently available that measure 140 nanometers in width, the researchers said. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.
Heath said it's the sort of device that a semiconductor company like Intel Corp. would contemplate making in 2020.
"This shows it is possible to manufacture really high-fidelity circuits at a density that is more molecular in scale than the way things have been done traditionally," he said. "That's what we were really after. The memory is just a demonstration of that."