[Josh] had a little project where he needed to keep a variable in RAM while a microcontroller was disconnected from a power source. Yes, the EEPROM on board would be able to store a variable without power, but that means writing to the EEPROM a lot, killing the lifetime of the chip. He found an ATTiny can keep the RAM alive for a variable amount of time – somewhere between 150ms and 10 minutes. Wanting to understand this variability, he decided to solve the mystery of the zombie RAM.
The first experiment involved writing a little bit of code for an ATTiny4313 that looked for a value in RAM on power up and light up a LED if it saw the right value. The test circuit consisted of a simple switch connected to the power pin. Initial tests were astonishing; the ATTiny could hold a value in RAM for up to 10 minutes without power.
With the experiment a success, [Josh] updated his project to use this new EEPROM-saving technique. Only this time, it didn’t work. The value hidden away in RAM would die in a matter of milliseconds, not minutes. After tearing his hair out looking for something different, [Josh] rigged up an Arduino based test circuit with humidity and temperature sensors to see if that had any effect. It didn’t, and the zombie RAM was still not-undead.
The key insight into how the RAM in an ATtiny could stay alive for so long came when [Josh] noticed his test circuit had a LED, but the actual project didn’t. Apparently this LED was functioning as a very tiny solar cell, generating a tiny bit of current that kept the RAM alive. A dark room with a flashlight confirmed this hypothesis, and once [Josh] gets his uCurrent from Kickstarter he’ll know exactly how much current this LED is supplying.