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US boffin enables high speed, non-volatile CPUs

Easy-to-apply 'high dieletric constant' material found

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A US researcher has discovered how to furnish the circuits in a microprocessor with super-efficient insulators. The discovery will not only make even higher clock speeds possible but may allow chip companies to build processors that can pick up work exactly where they left off when the power was pulled.

Chip giant Motorola has already made a play to license the discovery.

The secret, uncovered by Rodney McKee, a scientist with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is a type of material called a perovskite oxide, the journal Science reports.

Unlike the insulator used by today's chips - silicon dioxide - perovskite oxide are far more efficient at blocking current. The upshot is that chip designers need far less perovskite oxide to separate circuits, allowing the electrical paths to be crammed closer together, than silicon dioxide. So not only can they cram more circuits onto a given size of chip, but there's less risk of signals interfering with each other and causing data corruption or other malfunctions.

The idea of using such super-insulators - compounds with a high dielectric constant - isn't new. McKee's usage of perovskite oxides, however, has allowed him to apply a super-insulator to a chip without the imperfections inherent in the high-dielectric-constant compounds chip makers are investigating today,

McKee's choice of material is fortuitous for another reason: perovskite oxides can retain internal electric fields for 15 years whenever the power is cut. That could allow a processor based on the material to retain its exact state whenever the power fails. Put the power back on, and the chip picks up where it left off. ®

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