The security chips could store encrypted data written two different ways -- electrically and magnetically -- making extraction of the data more complex and so more difficult for attackers to decrypt.
The researchers, headed up by professors Harry Kroto, a Nobel laureate, and Naresh Dalal, also say these crystals can be made using less toxic and more readily available materials than current chip materials that almost always include lead. The new materials would use manganese and iron instead, Dalal says.
The main purpose of their research is to find materials whose crystalline structure can be used as the building blocks of digital circuits. Kroto calls this bottom-up design where the material itself provides the capacity to store data rather than top-down design in which structure needed to store data electronically are imposed on the surface of another medium. "The next stage would be reduction in size of storage elements," he says.
Kroto and Dalal are looking for two-dimensional structures that can support this bottom-up engineering, and in the course of doing that discovered three-dimensional crystalline structures that have concurrent properties of being influenced by electrical current and being influenced by magnetic fields. This is a rare combination in which materials are said to be multiferroic because they are ferroelectric and ferromagnetic at the same time.
So far, the research team has found four such crystals, and expects to be able to create more. While their discoveries are promising a great deal of work needs to be done before suitable materials are found and developed into products.
One major stumbling block is that the mulitferroic properties of the crystals occur only at about -150 degrees Celsius, so they need to discover others that exhibit similar characteristics at higher temperatures to make them practical.
As for the two-dimensional crystals that could succeed silicon as the main material in computer chips, the journey is just starting. "This is where the transistor was when it was first invented," Kroto says. "Many years and billions of dollars have been spent to make silicon the material used in computers, and we have to catch up with silicon. It’s a long, hard road before we catch up."