Voltage-Controlled Switchable Material Could Enable New Memory Chips

Switchable-Material-Could-Enable-New-Memory-Chip-Design
This diagram shows how an electrical voltage can be used to modify the oxygen concentration, and therefore the phase and structure, of strontium cobaltites. Pumping oxygen in and out transforms the material from the brownmillerite form (left) to the perovskite form (right).

A new thin-film material whose phase and electrical properties can be switched between metallic and semiconducting could lead to new memory chip designs.

Two MIT researchers have developed a thin-film material whose phase and electrical properties can be switched between metallic and semiconducting simply by applying a small voltage. The material then stays in its new configuration until switched back by another voltage. The discovery could pave the way for a new kind of “nonvolatile” computer memory chip that retains information when the power is switched off, and for energy conversion and catalytic applications.

The findings, reported in the journal Nano Letters in a paper by MIT materials science graduate student Qiyang Lu and associate professor Bilge Yildiz, involve a thin-film material called a strontium cobaltite, or SrCoOx.

Usually, Yildiz says, the structural phase of a material is controlled by its composition, temperature, and pressure. “Here for the first time,” she says, “we demonstrate that electrical bias can induce a phase transition in the material. And in fact we achieved this by changing the oxygen content in SrCoOx.”

“It has two different structures that depend on how many oxygen atoms per unit cell it contains, and these two structures have quite different properties,” Lu explains.

One of these configurations of the molecular structure is called perovskite, and the other is called brownmillerite. When more oxygen is present, it forms the tightly-enclosed, cage-like crystal structure of perovskite, whereas a lower concentration of oxygen produces the more open structure of brownmillerite.

The two forms have very different chemical, electrical, magnetic, and physical properties, and Lu and Yildiz found that the material can be flipped between the two forms with the application of a very tiny amount of voltage — just 30 millivolts (0.03 volts). And, once changed, the new configuration remains stable until it is flipped back by a second application of voltage.

Strontium cobaltites are just one example of a class of materials known as transition metal oxides, which is considered promising for a variety of applications including electrodes in fuel cells, membranes that allow oxygen to pass through for gas separation, and electronic devices such as memristors — a form of nonvolatile, ultrafast, and energy-efficient memory device. The ability to trigger such a phase change through the use of just a tiny voltage could open up many uses for these materials, the researchers say.

Previous work with strontium cobaltites relied on changes in the oxygen concentration in the surrounding gas atmosphere to control which of the two forms the material would take, but that is inherently a much slower and more difficult process to control, Lu says. “So our idea was, don’t change the atmosphere, just apply a voltage.”

“Voltage modifies the effective oxygen pressure that the material faces,” Yildiz adds. To make that possible, the researchers deposited a very thin film of the material (the brownmillerite phase) onto a substrate, for which they used yttrium-stabilized zirconia.

In that setup, applying a voltage drives oxygen atoms into the material. Applying the opposite voltage has the reverse effect. To observe and demonstrate that the material did indeed go through this phase transition when the voltage was applied, the team used a technique called in-situ X-ray diffraction at MIT’s Center for Materials Science and Engineering.

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