COMPUTER MEMORY CHIPS are notorious for developing amnesia as soon as their power is switched off. While "flash" and other so-called nonvolatile memory chips can remember without power, they are costly and difficult to make. But that may change, thanks to the discovery of "protonic" memories by a team that includes Karel Vanheusden, an assistant research professor at the University of New Mexico, and William L. Warren, a materials scientist at nearby Sandia National Laboratories.

In late 1995, during experiments on how silicon wafers can be probed for defects, the team noticed that protons, or hydrogen ions, deep within the wafer were responding to electrical signals on the surface. "Nobody had seen these moving protons before," says Vanheusden. Now, the team reports in the Apr. 10 issue of the journal Nature that the buried protons can be precisely controlled with standard microcircuits--and thus can be used to store data. This may provide the underpinnings for a new type of cheap forget-me-not chip.

Protonic memory chips won't need the fancy processing used for other such chips. They also have "a big performance advantage over flash--they can operate at very low power levels" and prolong battery life in laptops, says Warren. Texas Instruments Inc. has already produced test chips.

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