According to Dr. James M. Tour, a synthetic organic chemist at Houston’s Rice University, flash memory devices can only be built smaller for another six to seven years – at that point, they will reach a technological barrier. Already, however, Tour and his colleagues have developed a new type of memory chip, which they believe could replace flash in thumb drives, smartphones and computers. Not only does their chip allow more data to be stored in a given space, but it can also be folded like paper, withstand temperatures of up to 1,000ºF (538ºC), and is transparent – this means that devices’ screens could also serve as their memory.
The first prototypes of the new chip incorporated a layer of graphene or other carbon-based material, deposited on top of a supposedly inert insulating layer of silicon oxide. After some experimentation, however, it was discovered that the silicon oxide was actually the active material – the graphene isn’t even required.
The chips are configured with two terminals per bit of information, while standard chips utilize three. This feature allows the chip’s components to be arranged in a three-dimensional structure, as opposed to traditional two-dimensional chips, allowing for more data storage within the same footprint.
Another feature of the new chips is a high on-off ratio of around 1,000,000:1. This is a measure of how much electrical current can flow in the chip when it stores information versus when it is empty, and it's an attribute that makes the chip attractive to manufacturers.
Because they are not only transparent but also flexible, the chips could be used both to let devices’ touchscreens double as their memory location, and to make those screens less brittle and fragile. By moving memory into the screen, space inside of the devices would be made available for other components ... or the devices could simply be made thinner.
The chips could also be used for heads-up displays on vehicle windshields.
Tour hopes to get some of the chips up to the International Space Station in July, to test them in the high radiation of outer space. He is currently talking to electronics manufacturers, about getting the chips into products.
Dr. Tour discusses the new chips in detail in the ACS video here.