Sandia LabNews

'Protonic' memory chip wins a 1998 Discover Award

During an Academy Awards-style ceremony at Epcot Center recently, the innovators of Sandia’s memory-retentive computer chip received one of ten Discover Awards for Technological Innovation. The awards are presented annually by the editors of Discover magazine for the year’s top inventions.

The awards honor technologies that the judges say "promise to have a revolutionary impact on society." Winners in each of the ten categories were announced on June 6 at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla.

Scientists at Sandia, France Telecom, and the University of New Mexico (UNM) developed the inexpensive, low-powered memory-retaining device that may keep computer data from being lost during a power outage.

To create the chip, the scientists bathed the device in hydrogen gas at a key step during fabrication. The gas permeates the heated chip, and protons become embedded at defects in the silicon dioxide. During operation, the protons can roam only within the chip’s central layer of silicon dioxide, which is sandwiched between layers of silicon. When the power is turned off, the protons stay where they are, thus preserving the information. In devices such as D-RAMs (dynamic random access memory), typically based on electron flow, all data are lost when the power goes off.

The technique is simple and inexpensive and requires only a few additional processing steps. Its development is being funded by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The "protonic chip" was selected in April as one of five finalists in the Computer Hardware and Electronics category. Winning the Discover Award signifies that the judges scored the protonic chip as the top technology entered in that category.

Bill Warren (1812) accepted the award on behalf of the protonic chip development team. Other team members included Karel Vanheusden (UNM), Dan Fleetwood, Marty Shaneyfelt, Jim Schwank, Peter Winokur (all 1727), Bruce Draper (1721), Mike Knoll (1730), Jeff Bullington (Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Processes for Economic Competitiveness, AMMPEC), and Rod Devine (France Telecom).

More information about the project is available at

Argonne National Laboratory also received a 1998 Discover Award in the Environment category for its new process for making a nonpolluting, corn-based solvent.

A Sandia/FAA commercial aircraft repair technique was a finalist in the Aviation and Aerospace category. More information about that project is available at

In 1997 Sandian Ralph James at Sandia’s California site was a Discover Award winner for his wristwatch-sized detector that can distinguish between sources of radiation.

Since 1995 DOE facilities have won eight top Discover prizes. Over the past four years DOE labs have had 23 Discover Award finalists. More than 4,000 nominees were considered for this year’s competition.

Secretary of Energy Federico Peña congratulated the DOE award winners and other honorees at the ceremony. "It is fitting that you should be recognized here at Disney World where they are ‘making dreams come true,’ " he said, "because you are the people whose dreams of the next century will be the foundation for future generations. This just goes to show that the Department of Energy is truly a national pacesetter in scientific innovation."

This is the ninth year Discover, a general-audience science magazine with a circulation of 1.2 million, has honored top innovators.

More information about the Discover Awards for Technological Innovation is available at