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Scientists call on water power for future storage

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Materials scientists have said water and wires could offer limitless storage. With the help of H2O, nanoscale ferroelectric effects will store binary information at unprecedented densities - they hope.

The ferroelectric effect is where electrical poles are induced by applying an electrical field. The orientation of the poles can be flipped to encode data. Until now, a big problem for ferroelectric memory was the stability of the data because of problems dampening charges forming on the surface of the ferroelectric material.

A team from Drexel and Pennsylvania universities says the answer unexpectedly comes from humble water*. They used barium titanium oxide nanowires 100,000 times finer than a human hair as the ferroelectric material. Hydroxl ions found in the wet stuff surrounded the wires, stabilising the orientation of the poles. The water-based method is more reliable than traditional metal electrode stabilisation.

Research leader Dr Jonathan Spanier said: “It is astonishing to see that molecules enable a wire having a diameter equivalent to fewer than 10 atoms to act as a stable and switchable dipole memory element.”

The potential of the effect for data storage has long been recognised, but the team says this new breakthrough makes the prospect more realistic. A cubic centimetre of ferroelectric memory could hold as much as 12.8m GB of data, they reckon. As well as unimaginably huge hard drive capacity, the technology offers the possiblity of RAM as fast as current silicon, that is not wiped when the computer is off.

The next challenge is to find reliable ways of assembling the nanowires in packed arrays. As you might expect, industry is watching this field closely. Apparently, Spanier is in contact with “major semiconductor device manufacturers”. ®

*Spanier et al. (2006) Ferroelectric Phase Transition in Individual Single-Crystalline BaTiO3 Nanowires. Nano Letters 6, 735-739.

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