Multi-value Logic Transistor to Provide Faster Processing Speeds

Computers and similar electronic devices have gotten faster and smaller over the decades as computer-chip makers have learned how to shrink individual transistors, the tiny electrical switches that convey digital information.

Scientists' pursuit of the smallest possible transistor has allowed more of them to be packed onto each chip. But that race to the bottom is almost over: Researchers are fast approaching the physical minimum for transistor size, with recent models down to about 10 nanometers—or just 30 atoms—wide.

The processing power of electronic devices comes from the hundreds of millions, or billions, of transistors that are interconnected on a single computer chip.

To extend the quest for faster processing speed, the microelectronics industry is looking for alternative technologies. Conventional transistors can convey just two values of information: As a switch, a transistor is either ON or OFF, which translates into the 1s and 0s of binary language.

One way to increase processing capacity without adding more transistors would be to increase how much information each transistor conveys by introducing intermediate states between the on and off states of binary devices. A so-called multi-value logic transistor based on this principle would allow more operations and a larger amount of information to be processed in a single device.

Through theory, design and simulations, the researchers from the University of Texas have developed the fundamental physics of a multi-value logic transistor based on zinc oxide. Their collaborators in South Korea successfully fabricated and evaluated the performance of a prototype device.

The device is capable of two electronically stable and reliable intermediate states between 0 and 1, boosting the number of logic values per transistor from two to three or four.

This new research would be significant not only because the technology is compatible with existing computer-chip configurations, but also because it could bridge a gap between today's computers and quantum computers, the potential next landmark in computing power.

While a conventional computer uses the precise values of 1s and 0s to make calculations, the fundamental logic units of a quantum computer are more fluid, with values that can exist as a combination of 1s and 0s at the same time or anywhere in between. Although they have yet to be realized commercially, large-scale quantum computers are theorized to be able to store more information and solve certain problems much faster than current computers.

A device incorporating multi-level logic would be faster than a conventional computer because it would operate with more than just binary logic units. With quantum units, you have continuous values.

The transistor is a very mature technology, and quantum computers are nowhere close to being commercialized. There is a huge gap. So how do we move from one to the other? We need some kind of evolutionary pathway, a bridging technology between binary and infinite degrees of freedom. The research work is still based on existing device technology, so it is not as revolutionary as quantum computing, but it is evolving toward that direction."

The technology developed by the researchers uses a novel configuration of two forms of zinc oxide combined to form a composite nanolayer, which is then incorporated with layers of other materials in a superlattice.

The researchers discovered they could achieve the physics needed for multi-value logic by embedding zinc oxide crystals, called quantum dots, into amorphous zinc oxide. The atoms comprising an amorphous solid are not as rigidly ordered as they are in crystalline solids.