October 01, 2015

Optical memory success which combined with photonic logic will enable computers 100 times faster than today

Researchers have developed the first non-volatile all-optical chip memory based on phase change material. The technology needed to commercialize this solution already exists and pairing their solution with photonic logic chips will lead to computers that are 100 times faster than currently available machines.

Scientists of KIT, the University of Münster, Oxford University, and Exeter University have now developed the first all-optical, non-volatile on-chip memory. “Optical bits can be written at frequencies of up to a gigahertz. This allows for extremely quick data storage by our all-photonic memory,” Professor Wolfram Pernice explains. Pernice headed a working group of the KIT Institute of Nanotechnology (INT) and recently moved to the University of Münster. “The memory is compatible not only with conventional optical fiber data transmission, but also with latest processorsThe new memory can store data for decades even when the power is removed. Its capacity to store many bits in a single cell of a billionth of a meter in size (multi-level memory) also is highly attractive. Instead of the usual information values of 0 and 1, several states can be stored in an element and even autonomous calculations can be made. This is due to so-called phase change materials, novel materials that change their optical properties depending on the arrangement of the atoms: Within shortest periods of time, they can change between crystalline (regular) and amorphous (irregular) states. For the memory, the scientists used the phase change material Ge2Sb2Te5 (GST). The change from crystalline to amorphous (storing data) and from amorphous to crystalline (erasing data) is initiated by ultrashort light pulses. For reading out the data, weak light pulses are used.,” Professor Harish Bhaskaran of Oxford University adds.

All-optical data memory: Ultra-short light pulses make the GST material change from crystalline to amorphous and back. Weak light pulses read out the data. (Photo: C. Rios/Oxford University

Nature Photonics - Integrated all-photonic non-volatile multi-level memory

Permanent all-optical on-chip memories might considerably increase future performance of computers and reduce their energy consumption. Together with all-optical connections, they might reduce latencies. Energy-intensive conversion of optical signals into electronic signals and vice versa would no longer be required.


Implementing on-chip non-volatile photonic memories has been a long-term, yet elusive goal. Photonic data storage would dramatically improve performance in existing computing architectures1 by reducing the latencies associated with electrical memories2 and potentially eliminating optoelectronic conversions. Furthermore, multi-level photonic memories with random access would allow for leveraging even greater computational capability. However, photonic memories have thus far been volatile. Here, we demonstrate a robust, non-volatile, all-photonic memory based on phase-change materials. By using optical near-field effects, we realize bit storage of up to eight levels in a single device that readily switches between intermediate states. Our on-chip memory cells feature single-shot readout and switching energies as low as 13.4 pJ at speeds approaching 1 GHz. We show that individual memory elements can be addressed using a wavelength multiplexing scheme. Our multi-level, multi-bit devices provide a pathway towards eliminating the von Neumann bottleneck and portend a new paradigm in all-photonic memory and non-conventional computing.

18 pages of supplemental information

SOURCES - KIT (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology), Nature Photonics

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