Editorial Feature

Titanium Oxide and the Computer Chip Revolution

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Titanium oxide — a common ingredient in everyday paint — could be a key ingredient in reducing energy demand in devices as varied as driverless cars and smartphones. 

For decades, machine learning has been held back by a problem: computers tend to store data in one area and process it in another. This can be a massive waste of energy and computing power.

In collaboration with the University of Michigan, a team of researchers from Sandia National Laboratories has found that titanium oxide could be used to create computer chips. This could form the backbone of a technology revelation that could benefit machine learning, in particular. This could mean a significant boost for devices that depend on autonomous driving, voice recognition, image processing, and a wealth of other functions. 

The team’s research is published in the journal Advanced Materials. 

Exploring the Titanium Oxide Computing Link

Titanium oxide is a transition metal with valence electrons that can play a role in forming chemical bonds . It  is one of the most extensively studied oxides. 

The metal has countless applications in the development of electronic devices. One of its most recent and exciting designations is as a material in the development of biosensors , which detects the presence of biomolecules, biological structures, or microorganisms.

Titanium oxide is a common ingredient in paint because it is cheap and non-toxic, but what makes it such a desirable electronics component?

The key to this application and its use in the power-saving non-volatile computer memory (NVM) — a type of memory that holds stored data even if its power is cut off —  is oxygen.

Titanium oxide has oxygen atoms that can be snatched out. When this is done, it creates oxygen vacancy, making titanium oxide electrically conductive. These oxygen vacancies help store electrical data , which is  information that can be recovered with an electric charge. This instantly gives any device with titanium oxide a massive boost in computing power. 

The team created oxygen vacancies by heating a computer chip with a titanium oxide coating to a temperature of 150 ⁰C. This separates oxygen molecules from the material, and when the chip cools, it stores any information programmed onto it.

Breathing Life into a Computing Revolution

A computer system equipped with the titanium oxide chips devised by the researchers could cut out the middle man, allowing data to be processed in the same location in which it is stored. The team’s early research has also led it to believe its new technique will manage to achieve this data processing in a predictable and repeatable way. 

Autonomous driving devices that control driverless vehicles are an example. These ‘robo-cars’ — which are becoming increasingly common — require the ability to make quick decisions and perform near-constant assessments of the road ahead and potential hazards. This requires moving a lot of information around and consumes a lot of energy.

The team's alternative could allow the computer ‘brains’ of self-driving vehicles to function with reduced energy consumption, which will undoubtedly be appealing to the automotive industry. 

However, the potential for this breakthrough goes further than self-driving vehicles.

The team has pointed to its applicability in a wide range of everyday devices. Voice recognition in personal electronics and smartphones, for example, currently relies on transferring a voice control command to a network, which transmits it to a central hub. This computing hub analyzes the voice, verifies it, and passes back confirmation that allows the command to be implemented. With the team’s system, that entire process could take place right in the palm of your hand. 

Before this can be implemented, there is still work to be done. The team will now focus on refining the process of creating the titanium oxide powered chips and developing production methods that can be scaled up for industrial use.

With significant applications in the global driverless car market — valued at 24.1 billion USD in 2019 — and in the smartphone market that sees the sale of an estimated 1.56 billion units per year worth an estimated 522 billion USD in 2018 alone, the technology could drive a major change to energy consumption and our everyday lives.

References and Further Reading

Li. Y., Fuller. E.J., Sugar. J. D., et al., (2020) Filament‐Free Bulk Resistive Memory Enables Deterministic Analogue Switching. Advanced Materials. https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202003984

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Robert Lea

Written by

Robert Lea

Robert is a Freelance Science Journalist with a STEM BSc. He specializes in Physics, Space, Astronomy, Astrophysics, Quantum Physics, and SciComm. Robert is an ABSW member, and aWCSJ 2019 and IOP Fellow.

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