DARPA Funds Programmable Nanoscale Switches for Next-Generation Electronics

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) website reports that two of DARPA’s Young Faculty Award (YFA) recipients have developed nanoscale electronic switches with reprogrammable features, similar to those at play in inter-neuron communication in the brain, which could find uses in next-generation reconfigurable electronic devices and brain-inspired computing.

These new high-speed, low-loss, adaptable nanoscale switches, developed by Qiangfei Xia and Joseph Bardin, both Assistant Professors in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, could become the basis of not only computer and memory devices but also multi-function, radiofrequency (RF) chips, which users could reconfigure on-the-fly to perform a wide range of different functions. For example, a single device could behave first as a cell-phone’s signal emitter and then as a collision-avoidance radar component or a local radio jammer.

The research is published in Nature Communications with the title “Nanoscale memristive radiofrequency switches.”

“The nanoscale dimensions of these switches, their performance, and the relative simplicity with which they can be integrated into existing chip technology bodes well for inclusion in a new generation of reconfigurable RF chips,” said DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office Director Bill Chappell.

These can change from one type of radio to a completely different type without changing the hardware. We can even use one chip set to switch from a communications system to a radar, which are traditionally very different designs.”

A New Generation of Electronic Circuits With Unprecedented Reconfigurability

Nanoscale SwitchThe scientists have proposed and demonstrated a nanoscale Radio Frequency (RF) switch based on a memristive device – a resistance switch whose internal state is determined by the history of applied voltage and/or current. Despite the fact that these new RF switches are of nanoscale physical dimensions, their RF performance is comparable to that of the best competing technologies.

The image shows a scanning electron micrograph of a programmable memristor switch, a pair of gold and silver electrodes is separated by an air gap of only 35 nanometers. Its switching behavior can be reprogrammed by applying a specific voltage across the electrodes that either leads to the formation or rupture of tiny silver filaments between them.

Memristive devices are currently pursued by both industry and academia for applications in the next generation non-volatile memory and “unconventional” computing like brain-inspired computing.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst press release notes that, while further research is required to improve the reliability of this technology to the level required for wide-spread adoption, their nanoscale dimensions and CMOS compatibility has the potential to enable a new generation of RF CMOS circuits with unprecedented reconfigurability.

Images from DARPA and Pixabay.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.