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Material scientists build ferroelectric memory device based on light response

Posted June 13, 2013
Properties of as-grown BiFeO3 thin films. Credit: Nature Communications 4, 1990 doi:10.1038/ncomms2990

Properties of as-grown BiFeO3 thin films. Credit: Nature Communications 4, 1990 doi:10.1038/ncomms2990

Researchers in Singapore, with assistance from materials scientist Ramamoorthy Ramesh, of the University of California, have succeeded in building a prototype ferroelectric memory device that uses light to read its polarity. In their paper published in the journal Nature Communications, the team describes how they built their device and its properties.

Current computers use two main types of memory for storing data, electronic chips or hard disks. The types of memory chips used can be broken down into three types: RAM, ROM and DRAM (flash). RAM is fast but lasts only while electricity is present. ROM can only be used once and DRAM is much slower than RAM. For that reason, scientists have been studying other ways to store data—the goal is to create a memory device that runs as fast as RAM, but works even when the electricity is turned off.

One promising technology is ferroelectric RAM, or FRAM. Based on bismuth ferrite, such devices hold states of “0” or “1” based on polarization states, rather than electronic states. While promising they have thus far had one main drawback—using electricity to read the polarization state erases the data causing the need for it to be rewritten. Over time this results in the introduction of errors. In this new effort, the research team found a way around this problem by using light instead of electricity.

Back in 2009, a team of researchers at Rutgers discovered that ferroelectric memory devices had a photovoltaic property—shining a light on them caused electricity to be produced. The researchers in Singapore noted that the amount of electricity produced by a cell in such a device depended on the polarization state of the material—a “0” or a “1” could be assigned to the different amounts. Equally important was the fact that shining a light on the material didn’t disturb its polarization state. They built a prototype and found it could be used as a fast memory device that holds onto data even when the power is turned off.

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