Multitasking has a price: Your computer is sucking up a lot of electricity keeping track of work you haven’t yet saved to the hard drive. Americans spend $6 billion a year on electricity to keep that data stored in a computer’s memory during operation. But that figure could drop sharply, scientists report this week, thanks to a new type of material than can permanently store such data—without needing a continuous trickle of electricity to do it.
Standard desktop computers rely on two types of memory technology to store streams of 1s and 0s that make up binary data. The computer’s hard disk stores data as strips of magnetic orientation recorded on a magnetic disk: Imagine billions of patches of compass needles pointing either north or south, each representing a 1 or a 0. Because this magnetic orientation endures until it’s deliberately switched, this type of memory is stable—it doesn’t require any added electricity to maintain it.
The second type of memory, however, does. This is Random Access Memory (RAM), or working memory, which the computer uses to perform tasks. Conventional RAM is made by linking several transistors together in a circuit; this type of memory is “volatile,” meaning that it needs to be fed electricity continually to retain each bit of information. Turn off your computer without saving your data to your hard disk and you’ve lost that information forever.
Computers suck up billions of dollars worth of power every year to ensure that doesn’t happen. Alternatives to conventional RAM do exist, some of which are nonvolatile memories. But these have drawbacks: They may be more expensive, heavier, or simply take up too much computer-chip real estate.