Step Made Toward Instant-on Computers

The whole start-up process for computers that seem so slow and so yesterday might eventually give way to instant-on capability with the help of a breakthrough announced Friday.

But don't expect to fully understand this unless you're fluent in all things ferroelectric.

Ferroelectric materials are the stuff of ATM cards. Let's pretend we know that and move on. ATM cards use the technology to instantly reveal and update stored information when waved before a reader, as you've experienced every time you swipe your card.

A computer with this capability could instantly be up and running, without all that hullabaloo of booting and rebooting.

Researchers have now added ferroelectric capability to material used in common computer transistors, a feat scientists tried to achieve for more than half a century, according to a statement from the National Science Foundation. They reported their findings in the April 17 issue of the journal Science.

Ferroelectric materials provide low-power, high-efficiency electronic memory, the researchers say. So here's what they did:

Researchers led by Cornell University materials scientist Darrell Schlom took strontium titanate, a normally non-ferroelectric variant of the ferroelectric material used in smart cards, and deposited it on silicon — the principal component of most semiconductors and integrated circuits — in such a way that the silicon squeezed it into a ferroelectric state.

The work could pave the way for a next-generation of memory devices that are faster, use less power, and are more convenient to use. For everyday computer users, it could mean no more waiting for the operating system to come online or to access memory slowly from the hard drive.

"Several hybrid transistors have been proposed specifically with ferroelectrics in mind," said Schlom. "By creating a ferroelectric directly on silicon, we are bringing this possibility closer to realization."

More research is needed to achieve a ferroelectric transistor that would make "instant on" computing a reality, but having the materials in direct contact, free of intervening reaction layers, is an important step, Schlom and colleagues said.