IBM Breakthrough Opens Way to Chips That Mimic Human Brain

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Print this article Print

IBM Research announced a scientific breakthrough that could lead to chips that use less power than silicon-based systems and mimic the human brain.

IBM has announced a materials science breakthrough at the atomic level that could pave the way for a new class of non-volatile memory and logic chips that would use less power than today’s silicon-based devices, according to Big Blue.

Rather than using conventional electrical means that operate today’s semiconducting devices, IBM’s scientists discovered a new way to operate chips using tiny ionic currents, which are streams of charged atoms that could mimic the event-driven way in which the human brain operates.

For decades the transistor has undergone very little change. As semiconductor chips continue to scale, the materials and techniques to build chips are rapidly approaching physical and performance limitations. New solutions need to be developed that are more efficient and higher performing, IBM said.

“As Moore’s law is coming to an end, we need to think of alternative means of building devices,” Stuart Parkin, Ph.D., a physicist and IBM Fellow, told eWEEK.

Metal oxides have been around for quite some time, and being able to transition this material from an insulator to a conducting metal has already been accomplished. However, being able to transition the material to a stable enough state so it can be used as a switch has been the biggest challenge. However, by applying a charged ionic liquid electrolyte to the substance, IBM researchers have cracked the code to maintaining a stable insulating and conducting state of the oxide material. This new discovery opens up a path for making oxide-based switches and logic gates a standard in the semiconductor chip-manufacturing process of the future.

Today’s computers typically use semiconductors made with Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) process technologies and it was long thought that these chips would double in performance and decrease in size and cost every two years. But the materials and techniques to develop and build CMOS chips are rapidly approaching physical and performance limitations and new solutions may soon be needed to develop high-performance and low-power devices, Parkin said.

Yet IBM research scientists showed that it is possible to reversibly transform metal oxides between insulating and conductive states by the insertion and removal of oxygen ions driven by electric fields at oxide-liquid interfaces. Once the oxide materials, which are innately insulating, are transformed into a conducting state, the IBM experiments showed that the materials maintain a stable metallic state even when power to the device is removed. This non-volatile property means that chips using devices that operate using this novel phenomenon could be used to store and transport data in a more efficient, event-driven manner instead of requiring the state of the devices to be maintained by constant electrical currents.

“Our ability to understand and control matter at atomic scale dimensions allows us to engineer new materials and devices that operate on entirely different principles than the silicon-based information technologies of today,” said Parkin in a statement. “Going beyond today’s charge-based devices to those that use miniscule ionic currents to reversibly control the state of matter has the potential for new types of computing devices. Using these devices and concepts in novel three-dimensional architectures could prevent the information-technology industry from hitting a technology brick wall.”

To achieve this breakthrough, IBM researchers applied a positively charged ionic liquid electrolyte to an insulating oxide material--vanadium dioxide--and successfully converted the material to a metallic state. The material held its metallic state until a negatively charged ionic liquid electrolyte was applied to convert it back to its original, insulating state.

“The operational principle is entirely different from a silicon-based transistor,” Parkin said.

Such metal-to-insulator transition materials have been extensively researched for a number of years.  However, contrary to earlier conclusions, IBM discovered that it is the removal and injection of oxygen into the metal oxides that is responsible for the changes in state of the oxide material when subjected to intense electric fields.

The transition from a conducting state to an insulating state has also previously been obtained by changing the temperature or applying an external stress, both of which do not lend themselves to device applications.

“We can create potentially entirely different devices,” Parkin said. “This could lead to new computing systems and operations that run much more energy efficiently. This also could spawn new types of cognitive devices. IBM already has some cognitive systems,” he said, referring to software-based systems such as IBM’s Watson that is capable of learning.

“What we want to do is build more hardware that itself is cognitive and that evolves,” Parkin said.

Originally published on www.eweek.com.