Research Spotlight: UConn engineers explore new type of computer memory

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A 2.5" hard drive that has been opened, exposing its inner workings. This is the current method of storage in PCs, this is being improved upon by the computer memory research.  Photo by    Evan-Amos

A 2.5″ hard drive that has been opened, exposing its inner workings. This is the current method of storage in PCs, this is being improved upon by the computer memory research. Photo by Evan-Amos

Researchers at the University of Connecticut are exploring new developments in materials science which could revolutionize how computers function and store memory. 

The researchers are specifically looking at Phase Change Memory, or PCM. PCM is a type of Random Access Memory, or RAM, based in the melting and solidifying of a metal alloy made of germanium, antimony and tellurium. Though the term may seem foreign, the implications of the research could have a large impact. As explained by the Indiana University Knowledge Base, how fast any computer functions is in part due to its RAM.  

RAM is the amount of space the computer has to execute programs. Computers use regular memory to store the majority of information, and RAM to run programs.  

In contrast, PCM is faster than most RAM options commercially available today and generally more cost-effective. However, there are some drawbacks to PCM, which is what UConn researchers are working on resolving.  

Dr. Helena Silva, associate professor of materials science engineering at UConn and part of UConn’s nanoelectronics laboratory, leads research at UConn in the area of PCM.  

“We work on experiments and modeling to try to understand how to improve these devices. Improving for memory devices means understanding how they can last longer, how they can operate faster, use less power so our batteries last longer,” Silva said. “In terms of specific work that we do, we collaborate with the semiconductor industry to fabricate the devices and then we make electrical measurements in our lab here at UConn, and computer models to understand the material properties and the device behaviors.” 

Silva explained she started studying PCM after doing her graduate work in electrical engineering. 

“I did my graduate work in a related area, specifically in silicon devices,” Silva said. “At some point after coming here, I came across some unexpected results involving the melting of silicon, and that’s what led into a different area.” 

Silva said she was intrigued by the potential in PCM as the future of computer memory. 

“It was also when phase change material was starting to be a technology that looked like very interesting, with different physics than the way things have been done. I was excited about trying to learn about the new area,” Silva said. “Even though this technology is already commercial, there are limitations and problems that many groups around the world are trying to address.” 

More information about PCM research at UConn can be found at electron.engr.uconn.edu. 


Grace McFadden is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at grace.mcfadden@uconn.edu.  

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