Western University scientists develop game-changing ‘ultrathin’ flash memory device

At 10 nanometers (nm), the sleek new polymer material that scientists at Western University have developed for use in flash memory devices is 10,000 times thinner than a single human hair and a fraction of the 30-80 nm minimum of a typical flash drive.

The organic, carbon-based polymer could revolutionize the production of memory devices for increasingly smaller and lighter smartphones and tablets and the new design criteria related to these organic polymers also paves the way for devices with greater memory capacity.

Design criteria for ultrathin single-layer flash memristors from an organic polyradical,” a scientific investigation led by Giovanni Fanchini and Joe Gilroy from Western’s Centre for Advanced Materials and Biomaterials Research (CAMBR), was published this week by the journal Advanced Electronic Materials.

“The amount of information we need to store, handle and use is getting bigger all the time,” says Fanchini, Western’s Canada Research Chair in Carbon-Based Nanomaterials. “There is tremendous demand for a storage device that is light, stable and as small as possible, yet able to contain as much information as we want. At the same time, it must be cheap.”

When IBM introduced the first hard disk storage device in 1956, it was the size of a cupboard, stored just 5 MB of data – a huge amount then, but now the equivalent of one song – and was prohibitively expensive. Today, memory cards as small as a fingernail store 128 GB of data, enough to hold 32,000 songs, 27 movies and 250,000 photos. A common USB flash drive of 64 GB costs $30. Yet technology continuously demands smaller, lighter, cheaper devices with more capacity.

IBM and others in the industry have been researching a new kind of memory chip called a memristor, a portmanteau of memory and resistor. The component regulates and remembers the electrical current that flows through it and is typically made of inorganic material like silicon. This standard material can retain information without an external power source and can be writable, readable and erasable multiple times. But costs are high and the material isn’t thin enough at more than 15 nm, which is 5 nm or 0.0000005 centimetres more than the new Western-developed polymer material.

It should be noted that this discovery was not planned as a new technology for flash memory devices. The researchers were actually applying a new ultrathin radical polymer material for use in solar cells.

“In materials science, there are two different approaches you can take with a building block that has unique properties,” says Gilroy, who won an Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation Early Researcher Award in 2015. “One, you have an idea and want to synthesize the new material for a specific purpose. Two, you know the material is useful, and the challenge is finding what it will be useful for. In this case, we started off following the first approach but ended up with the second.”

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