North Carolina State University engineers have developed a new material that would allow a fingernail-size computer chip to store the equivalent of 20 high-definition DVDs or 250 million pages of text, far exceeding the storage capacities of today’s computer memory systems.
Led by Dr. Jagdish Narayan, professor of Materials Science and Engineering, the engineers used the process of selective doping, in which an impurity is added to a material that changes its properties. The process also shows promise for boosting vehicles’ fuel economy and reducing heat produced by semiconductors, a potentially important development for more efficient energy production.
Working at the nanometer level (a pinhead has a diameter of 1 million nanometers) the engineers added metal nickel to magnesium oxide, a ceramic. The resulting material contained clusters of nickel atoms no larger than 10 square nanometers, a 90 percent size reduction compared to today’s techniques.
“Instead of making a chip that stores 20 gigabytes, you have one that can handle one terabyte, or 50 times more data,” Narayan says.
By introducing metallic properties into ceramics, Narayan says engineers could develop a new generation of ceramic engines able to withstand twice the temperatures of normal engines and achieve fuel economy of 80 miles per gallon. Since the thermal conductivity of the material would be improved, the technique could also have applications in harnessing alternative energy sources like solar energy.
This discovery also advances knowledge in the emerging field of “spintronics,” which is dedicated to harnessing energy produced by the spinning of electrons. Currently, most energy used is harnessed through the movement of current and is limited by the amount of heat that it produces, but the energy created by the spinning of electrons produces no heat. The NC State engineers were able to manipulate the nanomaterial so the electrons’ spin within the material could be controlled, which could prove valuable to harnessing the electrons’ energy.