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Monday, June 27, 2005
Nano-levers Point to Futuristic Gadgets


Billions of tiny mechanical levers could be used to store songs on future MP3 players and pictures on digital cameras.

Researchers at a Dutch company have already demonstrated that miniscule mechanical switches can be used to store data using less power than existing technologies and with greater reliability.

Nanomech memory, developed by Cavendish Kinetics in the Netherlands, stores data using thousands of electro-mechanical switches that are toggled up or down to represent either a one or zero as a binary bit. Each switch is a few microns long and less than a micron wide - roughly a hundred times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Existing computer memory typically stores data as an electrical or magnetic charge. Cavendish Kinetics claims Nanomech memory can read and write data using 100 times less power than such systems, and works up to 1000 times faster. It is also much more resilient to both temperature and radiation, the company claims.

Intermolecular forces Nanomech memory incorporates hundreds of thousands of conductive metal levers, each just a few microns long. These are created by lithographically etching a design onto a template and then chemically dissolving away unwanted layers.

Introducing a miniscule voltage to an electrode below a lever causes it to bend forwards until it makes contact. Thanks to intermolecular forces on this scale, once flipped, a lever will also maintain its position, even when the voltage is switched off. The trick can be reversed by applying voltage to an electrode on the other side of the lever. And the state of each switch flips can be sensed easily by the electrodes themselves.

Repeating the feat across thousands of switches makes it possible to store something as complex as a computer program in Nanomech memory.

Cavendish Kinetic has so far developed a unit capable of storing 256 kilobytes of data, or around two million individual bits. This is suitable for simple microcontrollers - the tiny computers used to operate commonplace electric motors found, for example, in cars and consumer electronics products.

Gigabyte memory

But eventually the company hopes to stack many more levers together, boosting memory capacity to several gigabytes. "That's the long term aim," says Charles Smith at Cambridge University, UK, who is a chief technology officer at Cavenish Kinetics. "We want to put millions and millions on an individual chip."

This should make Nanomech memory a viable solution for portable music players and digital cameras. And it could improve battery life dramatically.

"The big growth area for large scale non-volatile memory devices is portable consumer applications, such as iPods and cameras," says Jim Miles, another nanotechnology researcher at Manchester University, UK. "And for these devices, power consumption is the big issue." Miles, however, points out that it is vital to be able to repeatedly read and write to this type of memory. "It's important to know rewrite speeds as well as how many rewrite cycles they can survive," he says.

Smith says the first increased capacity Nanomech chips should be available by the end of 2006. He adds that the memory technology's resilience to radiation should also make it suitable for use aboard satellites and other spacecraft. This is because cosmic radiation can cause space-borne computers to suddenly malfunction by flipping bits stored in memory.


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