Making memories

Innovative research underway at the University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences could provide the breakthrough needed to develop next-generation, “green” supercomputers—and data centres—that use less power and operate at ultra-low temperatures.

Associate Professor Ben Ruck and Dr Franck Natali are working with Viclink, the University’s business development arm, on the commercialisation of the project.

“Today’s powerful supercomputers perform massive, rapid calculations to solve all sorts of scientific and industrial problems—from better weather forecasting to safer cars and planes,” says Dr Natali, one of the lead scientists in the University’s Advanced Materials Lab. “The problem is, today’s silicon-based supercomputers also consume large amounts of electrical power, almost all of which converts into heat. This immense power consumption puts a strain on the world’s energy resources and contributes to greenhouse gases.”

Dr Natali says that current supercomputing technology is also now pushing up against the full extent of its speed capability.

“The computer industry is urgently looking for new materials to make memory storage that’s compatible with the way new low-power, low-temperature superconducting computer systems are being developed—and we think our work with Rare Earth Nitride (REN) materials may hold the answer.”

The team’s research shows that thin films of RENs have the right properties to make magnetic memory elements that are compatible with superconducting computing logic architecture.

“Our technology ticks all the boxes,” says Dr Natali. “It potentially uses less energy and creates less heat yet increases data processing and storage speeds. There are a lot of people working on this problem around the world, but we think our material has the best chance of success.”

Viclink agrees with this assessment, and has already patented the group’s nanotechnology process—which works below minus 250°C—which could ultimately see supercomputers reduced from the size of a building to the size of a car.

Dr Natali is now working in Viclink’s office two days a week to progress the commercialisation of this project, along with two other ideas from the Advanced Materials Lab. “[Viclink] has continually helped us to secure patents and investment that keeps carrying our research forward.”

That investment includes pre-seed funding from KiwiNet, and $6 million from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) over five years to develop computer memory. “We’re using the MBIE grant to fund further research, and to develop a proof-of-concept that answers industry problems,” Dr Natali says.

The team has formed a collaboration with a United States-based company that develops and manufactures superconducting logic devices, to ensure that their proof-of-concept meets industry needs.

Dr Natali says that commercialisation has many benefits outside of generating revenue.

“Building partnerships with industry means we can give our students guidance on possible career paths or connect them to internships. It’s also given our team the opportunity to actively recruit postgraduate students.”

The core team also includes Emeritus Professor Joe Trodahl, while the wider team involves collaboration with numerous students, postdoctoral researchers, and academics at the University and the MacDiarmid Institute—and around the world.

Because the technology centres around nanotechnology, the components are tiny, light and high value, meaning there is potential for them to be manufactured in New Zealand and shipped anywhere in the world.

“It’s exciting to think we could be creating jobs here one day,” Dr Natali says.