Saptarshi Das will lead a multi-institution team to develop an all-in-one semiconductor device that can both store data and perform computations. (Image: Tyler Henderson/Penn State)

A multi-institutional project led by a Penn State researcher is focused on developing an all-in-one semiconductor device that can both store data and perform computations. The project recently received $2 million in funding over three years as part of the new National Science Foundation Future of Semiconductors (FuSe) program, a $45.6 million investment to advance semiconductor technologies and manufacturing through 24 research and education projects across the United States.

“The goal of the program is to support innovation in semiconductors, which we need to address rapidly approaching limitations of current technology,” said Principal Investigator Saptarshi Das, Associate Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics in Penn State’s College of Engineering.

Microchip technology, crucial for computing and data storage in a wide range of advanced devices from smartphones to electric vehicles, has historically advanced to accommodate a doubling of transistor capacity approximately every two years. This phenomenon is known as Moore’s Law. However, Moore’s Law reached a standstill almost a decade ago, constrained by what Das called the inherent limitations of the prevailing materials and techniques.

According to Das, stagnation in Moore’s Law only accounts for making the transistors smaller.

“Another major problem in the semiconductor architecture is you have to get data from the memory, make the computation and put the data back,” Das said. “This shuttling consumes a lot of power. Can we do it in the same device?”

Das teamed up with co-principal investigators Ritesh Agarwal and Deep Jariwala, both at the University of Pennsylvania. Agarwal and Jariwala had developed new semiconducting materials comprising various phases of indium selenide that Das said they thought might be able to bridge the gap between storage and computation in a single device.

To help address how transistors based on these novel materials might fit into the existing confines of technology, they brought in Yale University’s Priyadarshini Panda, who specializes in artificial intelligence and its application across full systems.

“Ferroelectric materials are dipoles, pointing up or down, that can be changed by applying a voltage — it’s a natural storage device with two stages,” Das said. “Ferroelectric materials typically can’t be gated — or partially turned off — like semiconductors, when you stop the material’s conductance to control information or energy flow. But this ferroelectric material is a semiconductor, so it can be gated.”

The researchers said they plan to use this material to develop a new two-in-one storage and computing device that can integrate with standard silicon chips at the back end. This would help with quicker implementation, since the new devices could work with existing systems, according to Das. That would also set the stage for developing and manufacturing more neuromorphic computing devices, which mimic the energy saving and unique storage abilities of the human brain.

“This material will let us capture the best of both worlds: storage and computation,” Das said. “That opens up the possibilities, and that’s why we’re so excited about this project.”

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