University of Minnesota team receives $3.1 million federal grant to improve electronics

July 27, 2018
Close-up picture of a circuit.

A University of Minnesota team will receive $3.1 million over four years from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, to create new electronics capabilities that protect our country’s economic and national security interests.

The University of Minnesota team will explore novel approaches for advancing the state-of-the-art in Magnetic Tunnel Junctions (MTJs), which are nanostructured thin film devices used to improve hard drives, sensors, and other electronics. In recent years, MTJs have been used in stand-alone random access memory chips and hardware accelerators as well as extreme automotive and aerospace operating environments.

The team plans to demonstrate the fast switching and energy efficiency of MTJs. This will enable the true computation in memory and break down the wall between the computation and memory as the bottleneck in traditional von Newman computer architecture, a theoretical design for a stored program computer that serves as the basis for almost all modern computers.

“The University of Minnesota has been a leader for years in spintronics research. We have been persistent in pursuing MTJ based computation for more than 15 years. In fact, our team proposed the very early idea to use magnetic tunnel junctions for the computation in random access memory (CRAM),” said University of Minnesota Distinguished McKnight Professor and Robert F Hartmann Chair in Electrical Engineering Jian-Ping Wang, who will lead the University of Minnesota team. “This federal funding will bring us to the next level of innovation.”

The University of Minnesota-led team includes a mix of public and private researchers. In addition to Wang, the team includes National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) physicist Daniel Gopman, University of Arizona Associate Professor Weigang Wang, and GLOBALFOUNDARIES engineer William Taylor. The other University of Minnesota members are Assistant Professor Tony Low and research associate professor Bin Ma, both from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The University of Minnesota is one of only six lead institutions or companies to receive funding from the DARPA Framework for Novel Compute (FRANC) program, a new program under the DARPA Electronics Resurgence Initiative.

The time delay and energy expended in moving data between memory components that store it and processors that act on it are critical constraints on today’s computer performance today. To address this challenge, the FRANC program seeks innovations that go beyond current computing architectures. An important part of these innovations include the design of circuits that leverage the properties of new materials and integration schemes to process data in ways that eliminate or minimize data movement.
The novel computing structures that come out of the FRANC program could allow processing to happen where the data is stored with structures that are radically different from conventional digital logic processors, ultimately allowing for significant gains in computing performance to improve speed and memory.

To read more about DARPA’s FRANC program and the newest round of funding, visit the DARPA website.