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Getting A Computer To Remember What Was On The Screen When The Power Went Off

April 10, 1997
Sandia National Laboratories
Sandia scientists think they've found a way to remove the computing horror that occurs when the machine freezes up or the power goes but you haven't "saved" your most recent work.

April 10, 1997

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- One of the minor horrors of the computer age is to be working on a document not yet saved to the hard drive “memory” and lose everything because of a power outage or a screen freeze-up that forces the operator to shut down the computer.

Attempts to create circuits that save what’s “up” on a screen have used high voltages, which quickly wears down computer electronic components, and have been expensive.

Now scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and France Telecom have applied for a patent on a prototype memory-retention device that is inexpensive, low-powered, and simple to fabricate.

The device, referred to as “protonic,” is reported in today’s issue of the journal Nature.

To transmit data, the device uses embedded protons, which remain where they are when the power turns off, thus preserving the information. In devices such as D-RAMs (dynamic random access memory), typically based on electron flow, the information is lost when the power is turned off.

To create the memory-retentive chip, only a few steps must be added to the hundreds currently used to fabricate microchips. The key additional step is to bathe the hot microchip in hydrogen gas. The gas, permeating the chip, breaks up into single ions -- i.e., protons -- at defects in the silicon dioxide. (The defects were created by the heat of the manufacturing process.) The protons can roam only within the chip’s central layer of silicon dioxide, where they are trapped by two layers of silicon that sandwich the silicon dioxide.

The Sandia researchers found that:

•A positive low-voltage applied to one side of the silicon repels the protons to the far side of the silicon dioxide.

•A negative low-voltage applied to the silicon attracts the protons to the near side of the silicon dioxide.

If the power is turned off, the protons stay where they are, retaining information in the chip circuit.

Development of the process had its origin on the back of a napkin at an IEEE conference in December 1995 in Charleston, S.C. The discussion, subsequent work, and patent involved Sandians Bill Warren (principal investigator), Karel Vanheusden, Dan Fleetwood, and, at France Telecom, Roderick Devine.

First observation of the effect that protons remain in silicon when it is baked at high temperatures in hydrogen gas came as part of a systematic study at Sandia and France Telecom of the effects of hydrogen on silicon.

“For defense reasons, we’re always interested in radiation-hardened, low-voltage chips,” said Fleetwood.

The work is funded by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program, which funds which finances speculative defense-related research, and the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency.

Sandia is a multiprogram DOE laboratory, operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy, and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

Technical Visuals: available.
Media contact: Neal Singer, 505-845-7078,
Technical contact: Bill Warren, 505--272-7628;

Sandia National Laboratories' World Wide Web home page is located at News releases, fact sheets, and news tips can be found at The Sandia Lab News Online Edition is at

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Sandia National Laboratories. "Getting A Computer To Remember What Was On The Screen When The Power Went Off." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 April 1997. <>.
Sandia National Laboratories. (1997, April 10). Getting A Computer To Remember What Was On The Screen When The Power Went Off. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 25, 2016 from
Sandia National Laboratories. "Getting A Computer To Remember What Was On The Screen When The Power Went Off." ScienceDaily. (accessed October 25, 2016).