Memtransistors advance neuromorphic computing

A Northwestern research team has developed a novel device called a “memtransistor,” which operates much like a neuron by performing both memory and information processing. With combined characteristics of a memristor and transistor, the memtransistor also encompasses multiple terminals that operate more similarly to a neural network.

The memtransistor builds upon work published in 2015, in which Hersam, Sangwan, and their collaborators used single-layer molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) to create a three-terminal, gate-tunable memristor for fast, reliable digital memory storage. Memristor, which is short for “memory resistors,” are resistors in a current that “remember” the voltage previously applied to them. Typical memristors are two-terminal electronic devices, which can only control one voltage channel. By transforming it into a three-terminal device, Hersam paved the way for memristors to be used in more complex electronic circuits and systems, such as neuromorphic computing.

To develop the memtransistor, Hersam’s team again used atomically thin MoS2 with well-defined grain boundaries, which influence the flow of current. Similar to the way fibers are arranged in wood, atoms are arranged into ordered domains — called “grains” — within a material. When a large voltage is applied, the grain boundaries facilitate atomic motion, causing a change in resistance.

“Because molybdenum disulfide is atomically thin, it is easily influenced by applied electric fields,” Hersam explained. “This property allows us to make a transistor. The memristor characteristics come from the fact that the defects in the material are relatively mobile, especially in the presence of grain boundaries.”

Above – fabricated memtransistors

But unlike his previous memristor, which used individual, small flakes of MoS2, Hersam’s memtransistor makes use of a continuous film of polycrystalline MoS2 that comprises a large number of smaller flakes. This enabled the research team to scale up the device from one flake to many devices across an entire wafer.

“When length of the device is larger than the individual grain size, you are guaranteed to have grain boundaries in every device across the wafer,” Hersam said. “Thus, we see reproducible, gate-tunable memristive responses across large arrays of devices.”

After fabricating memtransistors uniformly across an entire wafer, Hersam’s team added additional electrical contacts. Typical transistors and Hersam’s previously developed memristor each have three terminals. In their new paper, however, the team realized a seven-terminal device, in which one terminal controls the current among the other six terminals.

“This is even more similar to neurons in the brain,” Hersam said, “because in the brain, we don’t usually have one neuron connected to only one other neuron. Instead, one neuron is connected to multiple other neurons to form a network. Our device structure allows multiple contacts, which is similar to the multiple synapses in neurons.”

Next, Hersam and his team are working to make the memtransistor faster and smaller. Hersam also plans to continue scaling up the device for manufacturing purposes.

Nature – Multi-terminal memtransistors from polycrystalline monolayer molybdenum disulfide

Memristors are two-terminal passive circuit elements that have been developed for use in non-volatile resistive random-access memory and may also be useful in neuromorphic computing. Memristors have higher endurance and faster read/write times than flash memory and can provide multi-bit data storage. However, although two-terminal memristors have demonstrated capacity for basic neural functions, synapses in the human brain outnumber neurons by more than a thousandfold, which implies that multi-terminal memristors are needed to perform complex functions such as heterosynaptic plasticity. Previous attempts to move beyond two-terminal memristors, such as the three-terminal Widrow–Hoff memristor and field-effect transistors with nanoionic gates or floating gates, did not achieve memristive switching in the transistor. Here we report the experimental realization of a multi-terminal hybrid memristor and transistor (that is, a memtransistor) using polycrystalline monolayer molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) in a scalable fabrication process. The two-dimensional MoS2 memtransistors show gate tunability in individual resistance states by four orders of magnitude, as well as large switching ratios, high cycling endurance and long-term retention of states. In addition to conventional neural learning behaviour of long-term potentiation/depression, six-terminal MoS2 memtransistors have gate-tunable heterosynaptic functionality, which is not achievable using two-terminal memristors. For example, the conductance between a pair of floating electrodes (pre- and post-synaptic neurons) is varied by a factor of about ten by applying voltage pulses to modulatory terminals. In situ scanning probe microscopy, cryogenic charge transport measurements and device modelling reveal that the bias-induced motion of MoS2 defects drives resistive switching by dynamically varying Schottky barrier heights. Overall, the seamless integration of a memristor and transistor into one multi-terminal device could enable complex neuromorphic learning and the study of the physics of defect kinetics in two-dimensional materials.

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