Research could instantly wake shut-down laptops

Researchers aim to put new material on silicon that allows transistors to retain data even when power is turned off

Researchers have developed a technology that could allow laptops to wake up instantly from a shut-down state without draining battery life the way sleep states do.

University researchers have built ferroelectric material - commonly found on smartcards - on silicon, which could allow certain transistors to retain information after power is shut off.

Scientists from Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University and Northwestern University are involved in the research.

The new findings could save users time by instantly booting laptops to their state when they were shut down. For example, a transistor in the laptop will be able to retain the state of a Word document on shutdown, and instantly reload the same state on reboot.

"It would be instant-on, meaning as soon as the power comes back on, your computer would be in exactly the same state it was when you turned it off and ready for action," said Darrell Schlom, principal investigator and professor at the department of materials science and engineering at Pennsylvania State University.

Quick-boot capabilities are enabled in laptops and most mobile devices, but many are unable to recreate shutdown states.

Laptops usually never reboot back to their shutdown state, unless they are in sleep mode, which drains battery power. In essence, ferroelectric materials could wake up laptops from sleep mode, but without drawing any battery power.

The research could pave the way for a new generation of lower-power, higher-speed memory devices, Schlom said. For laptop users, it could reduce the time to load an OS from storage devices like hard drives. The ferroelectric material could also retain data in case power is lost.

The research revolves around building ferroelectric transistors - which can retain data in any electric state - on hybrid transistors. Ferroelectric materials are found in smartcards used today in subway, ATM and fuel cards.

The researchers took strontium titanate, a variant of the ferroelectric material used in smartcards, and deposited it on silicon, putting it in a state where it could retain information even when power is off. The new findings cut the intervening layers that made it difficult to put the material on silicon.

Typically when power is turned off, voltages disappear from transistors, which have to be recreated when power is turned on. To recreate them, the relevant information is loaded from nonvolatile storage mediums like hard drives, which takes time. The ferroelectric transistors retain magnetization when the electric field is turned off, allowing it to retain data.

The technology will load operating systems differently from existing memory technologies like DRAM and storage technologies like hard drives and solid-state drives, Schlom said. Ferroelectric transistors conceptually differ in the way data is loaded and retained, Schlom said.

Benefits of ferroelectric transistors were first realized in 1955 by scientists at Bell Labs, Schlom said. Though the recent findings are a major step ahead, additional research is needed to build an actual ferroelectric transistor to make instant-on computing a reality, Schlom said. He couldn't provide a timeline for when such transistors would be built.

The researchers also include scientists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Motorola and Intel. The research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. government.

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