UVic chemist comes up with cool advance for digital devices

Smaller, faster and cooler — 50-per-cent cooler — computers could be the result of new materials technology being pioneered by a UVic chemist.

Natia Frank, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Victoria, has developed a new material that promises huge improvements in computers, smartphones and other digital devices.

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The new material is a combination of cobalt and purple-blue dye material. The dyes can absorb light energy, which alters the magnetic properties of the cobalt. Those magnetic properties can be measured using the differences in the cobalt’s resistance to an electrical current.

Frank explained that the new material, used in computers, can create what’s been called “light-induced magnetorresistive random access memory” or LI-RAM. It’s a technology that uses 10 per cent less energy than existing micro-circuits and produces up to 50 per cent less heat.

She said the generation of heat, the result of electrical current “leaking out” as it passes through a micro-circuit, negatively affects the transmission of electrical current through the circuit, affecting a computer’s function.

“You can start making mistakes in how you process data,” she said in an interview. The problem has been called “the Power Wall,” an obstruction to the development of new computers.

“But if you use the new technology, you can use a much smaller current and the leakage drops by as much as 50 per cent,” said Frank.

A patent has been filed for the LI-RAM material in partnership with Green Centre Canada, a private/public arrangement promoting research into new chemistry that will help protect the environment.

Frank said the big breakthrough for LI-RAM material is that digital memory can be reduced to the level of a single molecule.

With computers working on a binary code, reducing all data to a series of ones or zeros, the LI-RAM material allows each molecule to be read as a one or a zero.

“We can trigger changes in the magnetic properties with light, which means we can have simple molecule memory elements,” said Frank.

When combined with millions of other molecules, all reading as ones or zeros, the result can be data to be stored, manipulated or programmed in a very small space.

It might lead to development of what computer designers have called “the universal memory.”

It’s a hypothetical development of a coming generation of computers in which the hard drive, and memory storage, can be on a single chip.

“That’s what everybody is working towards now, the universal memory,” said Frank. “This type of technology is amenable to that.”

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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