Tiny discovery has giant implications

Pierre Fazan (right) with his colleagues Serguei Okhonin (left) and Jean-Michel Sallese Keystone

Swiss researchers have found a way to halve the size of the already tiny memory cells found in electronic equipment from computers to mobile phones.

This content was published on January 9, 2002 - 22:40

The discovery has important implications for manufacturers who want to increase the power of electronic systems while keeping them small.

"Each individual memory cell is made of two electronic components, one transistor and one capacitor, and we have found a way to remove the capacitor and use only one transistor in the cell itself," said Professor Pierre Fazan of the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

Extensive tests on individual cells have proved that they retain the information and function fully as a storage element.

"Now we have to go one step beyond and make a full circuit with millions of these things side by side," said Fazan. "This will probably require two to three years of work. We have to design a product, have it made and then test it."

Quantum threshold

Over the last few decades, computer power has doubled every couple of years. This has been achieved by making the computer's most elementary component, the transistor, smaller and smaller so that more can be integrated into a single microchip.

Today the chips on an integrated circuit are only a fraction of a micron wide. A micron is a millionth of a metre.

Eventually miniaturisation will reach a limit or quantum threshold below which transistors will cease to function. Fazan said the Lausanne discovery would fill a vital stopgap role.

"Quantum devices are probably going to happen in ten to 15 years," he said. "In the meantime, there is a lot of room for ideas like ours. We see our concept being used about three years from now, for seven years or so."

Fazan and his colleague, Serguei Okhonin, of the Institute's electronics laboratory have been working in collaboration with Innovative Silicon Solutions, a start-up company based in Neuchatel.

by Vincent Landon

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