Researchers led by Deep Jariwala and Roy Olsson have developed a first-of-its-kind high-temperature-resistant memory device that can reliably store data at temperatures as high as 600 °C. (Image: University of Penn)

A smartphone shutting down on a sweltering day is an all-too-common annoyance that may accompany a trip to the beach on a sunny afternoon. Electronic memory within these devices isn’t built to handle extreme heat.

As temperatures climb, the electrons that store data become unstable and begin to escape, leading to device failure and loss of information. But what if gadgets could withstand not just a hot summer day but the searing conditions of a jet engine or the harsh surface of Venus?

In a paper published in the journal Nature Electronics, Deep Jariwala and Roy Olsson of the University of Pennsylvania and their teams at the School of Engineering and Applied Science demonstrated memory technology capable of enduring temperatures as high as 600 °C — more than twice the tolerance of any commercial drives on the market — and these characteristics were maintained for more than 60 hours, indicating exceptional stability and reliability.

The team's findings not only pave the way for better sensors for tools that need to operate in extreme environments but also open the door for AI systems adept at data-heavy computing in harsh conditions.

“From deep-earth drilling to space exploration, our high-temperature memory devices could lead to advanced computing where other electronics and memory devices would falter,” Jariwala said. “This isn’t just about improving devices; it’s about enabling new frontiers in science and technology.”

Here is an exclusive Tech Briefs interview — edited for length and clarity — with Jariwala.

Tech Briefs: What was the biggest technical challenge you faced while developing this memory technology?

Jariwala: Getting the right composition of the film — the right thickness of the film, the memory material, the core of the thing. Also, getting electrodes. A lot of times, people take this for granted, but not all metals can retain their electrical integrity, and the desirable electrical properties at elevated temperatures for long periods of time. Many of them start oxidizing, and also other problems.

Tech Briefs: What was the catalyst for your work? How'd this project come about?

Jariwala: We have been working with this memory material for a while, about four years now. We pioneered a lot of these device concepts for room-temperature operation for the last three to four years. While we were presenting this at a conference, one of my collaborators from the Air Force said, ‘Hey, you know what? You should come down to the Air Force Research Lab and give us a talk about this.’ After hearing us, they said, ‘You know what? We have some very important DoD applications for which we need computing in extreme environments; obviously, jet engines where the biggest point of failure is memory.

Dhiren Pradhan, a postdoctoral researcher in Deep Jariwala and Roy Olsson’s labs, holds an aluminum scandium nitride information storage device capable of operating at temperatures higher than 600 °C. (Image: University of Penn)

So, you have to put the processor in one place and memory in the other place. Those delays and the connection-induced failures are the biggest pain points. So, if we can develop a memory storage technology at elevated temperatures, that would be amazing. The reason this all came together was, of course, that we went and made our presentation, but we knew that this material we were using at room temperatures is likely stable at elevated temperatures as well.

This is based on some very preliminary results that somebody in Germany had published in 2021, but nobody knew how it would fare when we would actually make them into proper devices of thin materials. When you make things thin at elevated temperatures, things could get really messy. We were using electrodes at room temperature for room temperature memory that are aluminum, which is not compatible at elevated temperatures. So, a lot of redesign had to be done. Also, testing had to be done at elevated temperatures to see if it survives. Once we went and presented to the Air Force, they wanted us to develop this.

In less than a year we had proven it. And then it took another seven, eight months to get the results peer reviewed and accepted in the journal and published.

Tech Briefs: Can you explain in simple terms how it works?

Jariwala: The heart of the memory is basically a material called aluminum scandium nitride. Some people call it a semiconductor material, some people call it an insulating material. What this materials does, is based on its crystal structure. The way atoms are arranged in this material, it can store a positive or a negative charge. And whether it can store a positive or negative charge allows you to control resistance, or the amount of current going through it. The detailed physics of it could become challenging for a lay person to understand. But these differences in resistance allow you to store zeros and ones in bits of this material.

Zeros and ones mean information — and therefore sort of a memory. Now, how does it store this positive or negative charge? Atoms are arranged in a particular periodic order in the crystal. This is a special kind of material called ferroelectric. These are materials that, under steady state without any external voltage applied, can store electricity. Ferro magnets can store magnetism, and therefore they stick to the wall of your refrigerator with no applied external magnetic field. So, the way this material stores electric information, or electric charge, within itself is that the atoms are either moved a little bit up or a little bit down, and if they're moved a little bit up or a little bit down, they just stay there. Then they could have the whole crystal store a net positive charge or a net negative charge. That's essentially what it is.

Tech Briefs: Do you have any plans for further research?

Jariwala: When we put this — even before it was peer reviewed — manuscript up on archive, the first people who reached out to us were from NASA. They have been planning Venus missions where they have processors based on silicon carbide to do computing. But their ability to compute is very limited because they don't have a memory. So, NASA said, ‘Hey, can you integrate your memory into our silicon carbide elevated temperature parts or any solar mission for that matter?’

Most people don’t realize that in space when you are facing the sun, the temperatures could reach 300 degrees or higher. So, the way the current generation of electronics get around that, is that they have a lot of insulation around them to protect them from heat and so on. This is clearly not desirable in space because weight consumes money and launching becomes more difficult. So, if you can have electronics completely resilient to elevated temperatures and radiation, that would be amazing.

Our plan is to commercialize this technology. We have a startup company. We are in the process of putting together a leadership team for the startup and raising the first round of venture capital funding and expanding it to full megabyte scale memory chips that can be sold in the market. We hope that the funding and everything works out by the fall of this year, then the plans are in place. I think the development and prototype production will take about less than two years.

Tech Briefs: Do you have any advice for engineers or researchers aiming to bring their ideas to fruition (broadly speaking)?

Jariwala: A lot of times what happens is people get married to a material or to a fundamental idea or fundamental principle in physics or chemistry. I think it's important to keep in mind that when you want to bring things to fruition for actual applications or actual technology that goes into the market and creates economic value, it's very important to understand production, the costs involved in production, scaling, what is compatible with existing production processes, and so on. What happens a lot of times, is something that is really cool in the lab won't survive any of these tests — economic liabilities, scaling, compatibility with current production processes — these are things that we have been very careful of in designing our research.