The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and its partners in the Nanoelectronic Computing Research (nCORE) consortium awarded funding for a new research center to develop novel materials for advanced computing systems.
The Center for Spintronic Materials in Advanced Information Technologies (SMART) will be led by and housed at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities and will include researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, according to a NIST release. Through nCORE, NIST will provide $7.5 million over four years, funding will be matched with a $2.8 million contribution from the SMART partners.
Spintronics, or spin electronics, is the study of the magnetic “spin” properties of electrons, as opposed to their charges, which is the focus of electronics. Spintronics offers advantages over electronics such as higher speeds, lower energy needs and increased stability under certain conditions, according to NIST. Advances in the materials needed for spintronics devices could enable new computational systems, including neuromorphic systems where microprocessors are configured more like human brains than traditional chips and could soon make computers far more perceptive about what’s going on around them, according to an MIT technology review.
These neuromorphic chips “will be designed to process sensory data such as images and sound and to respond to changes in that data in ways not specifically programmed. They promise to accelerate decades of fitful progress in artificial intelligence and lead to machines that are able to understand and interact with the world in humanlike ways,” according to the review.
Today’s computers are based on the von Neumann architecture, which transports data back and forth between a central processor and memory chips in linear sequences of calculations. This model is perfect for computing numbers and executing precisely written programs, but not for processing images or sound and then making sense of all the processed data.
Continuing to improve the performance of traditional processors requires manufacturers to pack in more and more faster transistors, silicon memory caches and data pathways, but the increased heat generated by all the components limits how fast chips can be operated, especially in mobile devices. This limitation could end progress in developing devices that can effectively process images, sound and other sensory information and apply the data to tasks such as facial recognition and unmanned navigation, according to the review.
The new SMART center is bringing together top experts in the fields of spintronic materials and device research. According to the SMART team proposal, the center will be “driven by the need for innovative memory and processing architectures that promise to significantly improve the energy efficiency, throughput, and overall functionality of tomorrow’s computing paradigms; in particular, neuromorphic computing, probabilistic computing, in-memory computing, and wave-based information processing.”
NIST launched the nCORE consortium in 2017 with SRCco, a not-for-profit subsidiary of the Semiconductor Research Corporation. The $2.5 million-per-year public-private partnership supports basic research focused on the long-term needs of industry in the areas of future computing and information processing.
The precompetitive research supported by nCORE explores fundamental materials, devices and interconnecting solutions to enable future high-performance computing beyond conventional transistor technologies and classical information processing and storage, NIST explained.
The first nCORE center, NEW LIMITS, was created in 2018, to develop and study new materials that will be applied in unique logic, memory and interconnect applications to enable novel computing and storage paradigms, NIST said.
NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. NIST is a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. To learn more about NIST, visit www.nist.gov.