Today's computers bear out the adage that memory is fleeting. The information held in dynamic random-access memory chips (DRAMs) vanishes when computers are shut off. So data has to be stored on hard disks or other devices.
Scientists at Cree Research Inc. in Durham, N. C., and Purdue University are beginning to design chips--made from silicon carbide instead of the traditional silicon--that won't lose their memories when the power goes down. Electric current leaks out of silicon carbide 10,000 times more slowly than from silicon. Such a chip would hang on to data for years, instead of milliseconds. That would greatly boost battery life in laptops and could eliminate the need for disk drives. "It is the ideal memory," says Cree scientist John W. Palmour.
Cree, which was spun off in 1987 from North Carolina State University, has now successfully built a key component of such chips--individual storage cells. Says Dwight Duston, director of innovative science and technology for the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Initiative Organization: "It's the biggest breakthrough of the year."