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Intel and Micron Announce "Revolutionary" Mystery Memory

This week, Intel and Micron announced 3D XPoint (“crosspoint”), a new form of nonvolatile memory that the companies say is 1000 times speedier than NAND Flash and ten times denser than DRAM. But what exactly is it? Good luck trying to figure it out.

“They’re being pointedly vague,” says Jim Handy, a memory analyst of Objective Analysis in Los Gatos, Calif. 

A press release on Intel’s website touts this as “the first new memory category since the introduction of NAND flash in 1989”. But I’m sure a number of companies would disagree with that characterization. There’s been plenty of work done on phase-change memory and other companies are pushing hard on resistive RAM. Everspin Technologies, a Freescale Semiconductor spin-off based in Arizona, has been shipping MRAM for years.

That said, Intel and Micron are big players in the semiconductor industry. Regardless of how unique 3D Xpoint is, their backing could really help launch alternative memory from the sidelines into mainstream adoption. 

Engineers have long hoped for a memory that could replace the mix we have now, something that could be speedy, dense, cheap, high endurance, and low power. Joel Hruska at ExtremeTech does a good job explaining how 3D Xpoint compares with existing memories based on the information currently available (he notes the 1000x-faster-Flash claim is somewhat vague but puts the new memory roughly on par with DRAM). 

There was a passing mention of “resistive elements” during a press conference on Tuesday, but changes in resistance are a common element in alternative memory technologies—that’s what denotes the difference between “0” and “1”. Still, some news outlets are betting, based on process of elimination and some other hints, that 3D Xpoint is some form of resistive RAM, which uses a voltage to alter the resistance of a material.

Intel and Micron say they plan to begin shipping the memory in 2016, so perhaps we’ll find out more about it then (their customers will likely find out more much sooner). Even if the companies themselves don’t release any more information, Handy says, “once they start releasing chips, everybody and his brother is going to know because reverse engineering is going to tear those things apart.”

Another big question is how 3D Xpoint will work its way into the existing ecosystem of memory and storage technologies. Handy says Intel could recommend it for its new server platform, details of which were leaked earlier this year and mention an alternate memory. Micron says it envisions the memory being used for both computation and storage.

The First White Laser

Scientists and engineers at Arizona State University, in Tempe, have created the first lasers that can shine light over the full spectrum of visible colors. The device’s inventors suggest the laser could find use in video displays, solid-state lighting, and a laser-based version of Wi-Fi.

Although previous research has created red, blue, green and other lasers, each of these lasers usually only emitted one color of light. Creating a monolithic structure capable of emitting red, green, and blue all at once has proven difficult because it requires combining very different semiconductors. Growing such mismatched crystals right next to each other often results in fatal defects throughout each of these materials.

But now scientists say they’ve overcome that problem. The heart of the new device is a sheet only nanometers thick made of a semiconducting alloy of zinc, cadmium, sulfur, and selenium. The sheet is divided into different segments. When excited with a pulse of light, the segments rich in cadmium and selenium gave off red light; those rich in cadmium and sulfur emitted green light; and those rich in zinc and sulfur glowed blue.

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Building a Single-molecule Transistor from Scratch

An international team of researchers has demonstrated for the first time that a single molecule can operate as a field-effect transistor when surrounded by charged atoms that operate as the gate. The team published its results in the August 2015 issue of the journal Nature Physics

The experiments were performed in Berlin at the Paul-Drude-Institut für Festkörperelektronik (PDI), in collaboration with researchers at the Free University of Berlin (FUB), the NTT Basic Research Laboratories (NTT-BRL) in Japan, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C.

The researchers used a technique first demonstrated by researchers at IBM in 1990 when they created the letters I, B, and M by moving single atoms around on a metal surface with a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). In order for the molecule to function as a transistor, the researchers had to deposit it—as well as the charged indium atoms that surround it, forming the gate—on a semiconductor surface (in this case, indium arsenide) instead of a metal. 

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$100 Million Hunt for Aliens Aims to Survey One Million Stars

The question of whether humans live alone in the universe has driven many scientists’ careers and fueled many a Hollywood fantasy of alien encounters. A new project described as the “biggest scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth” could provide some answers with an unprecedented $100 million commitment over the next 10 years.

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Microwave Power Beaming May Launch Space Planes into Orbit

A big part of the reason that it’s so expensive to send objects into space is that in order to get them there, we currently use messy, chemically-powered rockets that shed pieces all over the place on their way into orbit, and then smash themselves to bits on their way back down. A much more cost-effective (and elegant) solution would be a reusable single stage vehicle that goes up and comes right back down intact and ready to be refueled and reused.

To accomplish that, a more efficient source of power is needed. Rockets that have to haul their own fuel and oxidizer just aren’t going to cut it. Escape Dynamics thinks it has a solution in the form of a spaceplane that can launch vertically and make it to orbit in one shot, and is powered entirely by microwaves beamed from the ground.

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Why Aren't Supercomputers Getting Faster Like They Used To?

Currently, the world’s most powerful supercomputers can ramp up to more than a thousand trillion operations per second, or a petaflop. But computing power is not growing as fast as it has in the past. On Monday, the June 2015 listing of the Top 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world revealed the beginnings of a plateau in performance growth.

There are a number of technical aspects and economic factors that interfere with supercomputing improvements. Experts disagree on the cause, but the result could be a slowing of the pace of improvement in some scientific fields.

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Intel Hits Snag On The Way To Next-Generation Chips

Depending on what stories you’ve been reading during the last week or so, you’d either think Moore’s Law is in very deep trouble or has been rescued yet again from imminent demise.

Last week, IBM made a big splash with news of a 7-nanometer chip, which employs silicon-germanium instead of silicon, a long-awaited move toward alternate channel materials. Although not yet ready for mass production, the chip signaled we’re still on track to make smaller, cheaper, and better transistors.

Then this week, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced on a quarterly earnings call that his company has hit a sticking point with the manufacture of its 10-nm chips. The first 10-nm product, a chip code-named Cannonlake, will now be released in the second half of 2017. Depending on how you count, that’s a delay of at least six months. (At one point, the debut of this chip was ballparked for as early 2015.) 

If you haven’t been keeping close track, 14-nm is the smallest manufacturing generation currently in mass production. The 10-nm generation comes after 14-nm; 7-nm follows 10-nm. Each generation, or node, is supposed to have smaller features. And with any luck, those smaller transistors will also be capable of producing speedier and less power-hungry circuits than their predecessors.

One possible way of interpreting Intel’s delay and IBM’s chip is to conclude that IBM is gaining ground on Intel. But IBM has said little about when 7-nm chips would debut. Bringing those chips to maturity will likely rely on GlobalFoundries, which recently completed acquisition of IBM’s fabs. 

Another possible interpretation: Moore’s Law is faltering. Intel has long set the pace, hitting a new node every two years. But according to the earnings call transcript, Krzanich said Intel is now releasing chips with smaller transistors every two and a half years. He pinned at least part of the difficulty on the ability to print finer features.

The thing is, it’s hard to say what will happen going forward. Maybe we’ll get back to a faster pace of chip releases. Perhaps this slowdown will only continue. 

Chipmakers are battling the laws of physics, to be sure. But their timelines also depend on the economics of manufacturing—factors such as yield (the fraction of chips produced that actually work) and how many manufacturing steps it takes to transform portions of a wafer into fully-functional chips. 

But whatever happens, Moore’s Law won’t grind to a halt overnight. The cadence of Moore’s Law has changed before. And if it’s happening again, we may see other developments emerge that will pick up the slack, ones that explore what’s possible beyond simple miniaturization. The semiconductor industry has had the good fortune of being able to guide itself by a simple principle for 50 years. Now it seems the way forward is starting to get just a bit more complicated.

See our special report “50 Years of Moore’s Law” for more.

Weyl Fermions Found, a Quasiparticle That Acts Like a Massless Electron

After an 85-year hunt, scientists have detected an exotic particle, the “Weyl fermion,” which they suggest could lead to faster and more efficient electronics and to new types of quantum computing.

Electrons, protons, and neutrons belong to a class of particles known as fermions. Unlike the other major class of particles, the bosons, which include photons, fermions can collide with each other—no two fermions can share the same state at the same position at the same time.

Whereas electrons and all the other known fermions have mass, in 1929, mathematician and physicist Hermann Weyl theorized that massless fermions that carry electric charge could exist, so-called Weyl fermions. “Weyl fermions are basic building blocks; you can combine two Weyl fermions to make an electron,” says condensed matter physicist Zahid Hasan at Princeton University.

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