Print 24 comment(s) - last by bh192012.. on Mar 14 at 12:59 PM

Newly created carbon nanotube phase change memory sounds attractive, but it is much more expensive than traditional semiconductor-based phase-change memory. While it offers large energy efficiency gains, memory is typically a minimal part of power consumption on modern mobile devices.  (Source: Eric Pop, University of Illinois)
The root problem remains the power draw of the display

Researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois have improved upon a novel, faster form of memory to make it use power more efficiently.

The new memory falls under a class of devices called power phase-change materials (PCM), which store data as resistance, rather than charge.  Previous attempts at PCM memory had been fast, but less power efficient due to large contacts.

The Beckman team, led by computer engineering professor Eric Pop [profile], explored the prospects of much smaller phase-change memory using nanoscale contacts and a gapped carbon nanotube (a tube with a missing segment in the middle -- essentially two extremely almost touching nanotubes).

The results were that power consumption was cut by a factor of 100 from current generation phase change memory (the team did not put this in context with traditional memory, rather than to say it was much more efficient).

Professor Pop optimistically describes, "We're not just talking about lightening our pockets or purses. This is also important for anything that has to operate on a battery, such as satellites, telecommunications equipment in remote locations, or any number of scientific and military applications."

While semiconductor-based phase change memory is arguably commercially viable due to its speed, this carbon nanotube phase change memory may be one case where the actual device fails to live up to the hype.

How big an impact will this really have on mobile battery life, if it makes it to the market?  It’s likely that it won’t improve battery life that much in the long run.  Currently, the biggest power wasters on your mobile phone are your screen/GPU, your CPU, and the wireless modem [source]. 

Furthermore, there's no established process to create chips with gapped carbon nanotubes affordably in a fab.  Creating carbon nanotube PCM chips would be extremely expensive with today's technology.

Ultimately, this could bump memory access speeds slightly, and bump the battery life 2 or 3 percent in the best-case scenario.  While it's true every bit counts, the cost may more that negate the minimal gains.  

In other words you're spending a tremendous premium to go from semiconductor to carbon nanotubes and the only reward for that switch (reduced power consumption) is extremely minimal.

And the real question here is "why memory?"  There are so many more attractive power efficiency targets -- like transistors (for CPUs), the battery itself, wireless modems, and displays.   

When and if carbon nanotube production becomes affordable, this idea may become marginally useful.  But for now chalk this one to a lot of bark but not much byte.

The team's study is published [abstract] in the journal Science.


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By bug77 on 3/12/2011 10:13:27 AM , Rating: 5
Read the article carefully. There is already some semiconductor-based phase change memory with similar benefits.
This one is just more efficient, but also more expensive (because we have little experience in working with nanotubes). All Jason is saying (and I agree) is that this doesn't seem to pay off.

By GTVic on 3/12/2011 6:35:12 PM , Rating: 3
When quoting someone who is promoting the technology, Jason Mick says "optimistically describes ...". Nice put down! Since he files this as a blog I guess we can throw journalistic integrity down the drain.

His other arguments are just as baseless. He says power savings are worthless because other components in portable devices using other technology are more wasteful. Huh? Is that how we are to judge whether we should investigate new technologies. Do we wait until the more wasteful devices are consuming less and, when this component, as a by-product of that research, consumes a larger percentage of the power, do we then start investigating improvements? Makes no sense.

He asserts that the gains will be 2-3% without anything to back that up and he minimizes their claims ("the team did not put this in context ...") while not providing any proof for his own, he has no data to back up his belief that it is more expensive, there cannot be any. It is a new technology, not in production, that will likely get less expensive as it matures.

By bug77 on 3/13/2011 7:12:02 AM , Rating: 3
Aren't you a bitter one?

Yes, in a typical device that exists today, memory is not a power hog. There's a link in the article supporting this claim.

And the researchers did indeed pull a stunt when they said their memory is 1000 times more efficient than current phase-change memory, but failed to compare their memory with mundane DRAM or Flash.

You know, it's not Jason's duty to do a thorough feasibility study about this. This is the researchers' job. Not providing one, automatically raises a few questions, no matter where your sympathies lay.

By GTVic on 3/13/2011 10:55:32 PM , Rating: 2
Not bitter, just annoyed that he uses this as a forum for his opinions that don't appear to be very well thought out.

Apparently Rush Limbaugh thinks this is a science site so this opinion might have some weight.

Everyone knows that memory is not a power hog (percentage wise in a system), supporting this conclusion is meaningless.

The researchers are illustrating that they have made a significant improvement in a technology that is in a research phase. That is not a stunt. There may be many applications for this result other than Jason's cell phone.

Also, no, they are not obligated to make further comparisons, that would be Jason's job, if he can do it objectively and he has some data to back it up.

To throw a few opinions around and basically say that the research is pointless is not responsible journalism.

By bug77 on 3/14/2011 7:42:18 AM , Rating: 2
Not bitter, just annoyed that he uses this as a forum for his opinions that don't appear to be very well thought out.

So, what's a "well thought out" idea then? Cause you still can't do anything with that memory right now. Nor in the foreseeable future.

By NellyFromMA on 3/14/2011 12:45:00 PM , Rating: 2
Why would you even bother to read if you are so annoyed that you have to unconstructively criticize him? Find a new site?

Do you not get enough recognition at work or home that you feel the need to post these things?

By GTVic on 3/12/2011 6:44:53 PM , Rating: 2
If that is all he is saying, he could have put it as succinctly as you did at the bottom of the article and clearly labelled it as his opinion.

What he did instead was a more subtle hatchet job on the technology and the people promoting and working on it by sprinkling his seemingly baseless opinions and put downs throughout the piece.

By Lerianis on 3/13/2011 12:50:58 PM , Rating: 2
Key term here: YET! Jason has a history of not using that term, the fact is that once we find one way to make something, it usually makes it easier by far to find other ways to make something.

"Paying an extra $500 for a computer in this environment -- same piece of hardware -- paying $500 more to get a logo on it? I think that's a more challenging proposition for the average person than it used to be." -- Steve Ballmer

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