Skip to main content

Power interruptions no problem for new computer memory system

Computer users soon may no longer need to fear the loss of valuable data every time they hear thunder or see the lights flicker.

Under the joint sponsorship of the Department of Energy (DOE) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are working with Honeywell Solid State Electronics Center and Nonvolatile Electronics to refine a new type of computer memory that can survive power interruptions. The new memory system also can endure ionizing radiation, making it especially attractive for military and space applications.

"With current technology, if your computer loses power while you are working, the information that is in the computer's memory is lost," said Bill Butler, a researcher in ORNL's Metals and Ceramics Division. "This happens because the information in the memory must be continually refreshed by the electrical circuits."

The new memory system, however, stores information in a new way. Instead of conventional memory, which stores information as a tiny electrical charge, the system developed by Honeywell and Nonvolatile Electronics stores information according to the direction of the magnetization in tiny magnetic cells.

"This magnetization does not need to be refreshed," Butler said. "The magnetic cells consist of two magnetic layers separated by a spacer layer. These layers must be very thin - just the thickness of a few atoms - if the device is to work efficiently."

ORNL's role in this cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) signed in July is to provide unique tools that allow memory developers at Honeywell and Nonvolatile Electronics to see structures of the films at near-atomic resolution. They also will be able to directly image the magnetic fields of the magnetic cells.

"ORNL also has unique modeling tools we can use to improve the performance of the device," Butler said.

The three-year CRADA is supported by DOE's Laboratory Technology Research Program; DARPA support is from the Defense Sciences Office. Initially, researchers expect the improved memory system to be used in military and space applications. Depending on cost and market factors, the system could be incorporated into commercially available computers.

"This CRADA will provide much-needed insight into the operation of these new memory circuits that will make them attractive not only for use in military systems, where the loss of any data is unacceptable, but also competitive in the commercial marketplace," said Stu Wolf, a program manager for DARPA.

Russ Beech, director of research and development for Nonvolatile Electronics, also sees the CRADA as leading to great technological gains.

"Our CRADA with ORNL allows us to investigate the magnetic properties of much smaller magnetic cells that would yield the high densities necessary to be competitive as a main memory replacement part," Beech said.

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram research facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation. Honeywell and Nonvolatile Electronics are located in Minnesota's Plymouth and Eden Prairie, respectively.