Scientists from the University of Cambridge have created, for the first time, a new type of microchip which allow information to travel in three dimensions. Currently, microchips can only pass digital information in a very limited way – from either left to right or front to back. The research was published today, 31 January, in Nature.
Researchers believe that in the future a 3D microchip would enable additional storage capacity on chips by allowing information to be spread across several layers instead of being compacted into one layer, as is currently the case.
For the research, the Cambridge scientists used a special type of microchip called a spintronic chip which exploits the electron’s tiny magnetic moment or ‘spin’ (unlike the majority of today’s chips which use charge-based electronic technology). Spintronic chips are increasingly being used in computers, and it is widely believed that within the next few years they will become the standard memory chip.
The Lead researcher said —Each step on our spintronic staircase is only a few atoms high. I find it amazing that by using nanotechnology not only can we build structures with such precision in the lab but also using advanced laser instruments we can actually see the data climbing this nano-staircase step by step.
To create the microchip, the researchers used an experimental technique called ‘sputtering’. They effectively made a club-sandwich on a silicon chip of cobalt, platinum and ruthenium atoms. The cobalt and platinum atoms store the digital information in a similar way to how a hard disk drive stores data. The ruthenium atoms act as messengers, communicating that information between neighbouring layers of cobalt and platinum. Each of the layers is only a few atoms thick.
They then used a laser technique called MOKE to probe the data content of the different layers. As they switched a magnetic field on and off they saw in the MOKE signal the data climbing layer by layer from the bottom of the chip to the top. They then confirmed the results using a different measurement method.
Professor Russell Cowburn, lead researcher of the study from the Cavendish Laboratory, the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physics, said: “Each step on our spintronic staircase is only a few atoms high. I find it amazing that by using nanotechnology not only can we build structures with such precision in the lab but also using advanced laser instruments we can actually see the data climbing this nano-staircase step by step.
“This is a great example of the power of advanced materials science. Traditionally, we would use a series of electronic transistors to move data like this. We’ve been able to achieve the same effect just by combining different basic elements such as cobalt, platinum and ruthenium. This is the 21st century way of building things – harnessing the basic power of elements and materials to give built-in functionality.”
ABSTRACT – One of the key challenges for future electronic memory and logic devices is finding viable ways of moving from today’s two-dimensional structures, which hold data in an x–y mesh of cells, to three-dimensional structures in which data are stored in an x–y–z lattice of cells. This could allow a many-fold increase in performance. A suggested solution is the shift register —a digital building block that passes data from cell to cell along a chain. In conventional digital microelectronics, two-dimensional shift registers are routinely constructed from a number of connected transistors. However, for three-dimensional devices the added process complexity and space needed for such transistors would largely cancel out the benefits of moving into the third dimension. ‘Physical’ shift registers, in which an intrinsic physical phenomenon is used to move data near-atomic distances, without requiring conventional transistors, are therefore much preferred. Here we demonstrate a way of implementing a spintronic unidirectional vertical shift register between perpendicularly magnetized ferromagnets of subnanometre thickness, similar to the layers used in non-volatile magnetic random-access memory. By carefully controlling the thickness of each magnetic layer and the exchange coupling between the layers, we form a ratchet that allows information in the form of a sharp magnetic kink soliton to be unidirectionally pumped (or ‘shifted’) from one magnetic layer to another. This simple and efficient shift-register concept suggests a route to the creation of three-dimensional microchips for memory and logic applications.