Researchers at ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and Empa have developed a novel concept for a perovskite-based memristor that can be used in a far wider range of applications than existing memristors.
“There are different operation modes for memristors, and it is advantageous to be able to use all these modes depending on an artificial neural network’s architecture,” explains ETH postdoc Rohit John. “But previous conventional memristors had to be configured for one of these modes in advance.” The new memristors can now switch between two operation modes while in use: a mode in which the signal grows weaker over time and dies (volatile mode), and one in which the signal remains constant (non-volatile mode).
“These two operation modes are also found in the human brain,” John says. On the one hand, stimuli at the synapses are transmitted from neuron to neuron with biochemical neurotransmitters. These stimuli start out strong and then gradually become weaker. On the other hand, new synaptic connections to other neurons form in the brain while we learn. These connections are longer-lasting.
The memristors the researchers have developed are made of halide perovskite nanocrystals: “The ‘nerve conduction’ in these new memristors is mediated by temporarily or permanently stringing together silver ions from an electrode to form a nanofilament penetrating the perovskite structure through which current can flow,” explains Kovalenko.
This process can be regulated to make the silver-ion filament either thin, so that it gradually breaks back down into individual silver ions (volatile mode), or thick and permanent (non-volatile mode). This is controlled by the intensity of the current conducted on the memristor: applying a weak current activates the volatile mode, while a strong current activates the non-volatile mode.
“To our knowledge, this is the first memristor that can be reliably switched between volatile and non-volatile modes on demand,” Demirağ says. This means that in the future, computer chips can be manufactured with memristors that enable both modes. This is a significance advance because it is usually not possible to combine several different types of memristors on one chip.
The researchers tested 25 of these new memristors and carried out 20,000 measurements with them. In this way, they were able to simulate a computational problem on a complex network. The problem involved classifying a number of different neuron spikes as one of four predefined patterns.
Before these memristors can be used in computer technology, they will need to undergo further optimization. However, such components are also important for research in neuroinformatics, as Indiveri points out: "These components come closer to real neurons than previous ones. As a result, they help researchers to better test hypotheses in neuroinformatics and hopefully gain a better understanding of the computing principles of real neuronal circuits in humans and animals."