DRAM and SRAM replacements are also incoming, will improve system-on-a-chip solutions

Continuing ahead with its plan to spin-off its core personal computers business and focus solely on business software and hardware, Hewlett-Packard, Comp. (HPQ) faces a high degree of investor skepticism these days.  While some are optimistic about the appointment of former eBay, Inc. (EBAY) chief Meg Whitman to the CEO spot, share prices still hover around relative lows.  In short, HP needs all the good news it can get.

Just such an announcement may have arrived, with HP's announcement that it would be deploying memristor-powered storage devices within a year and a half.

The memristor is a fabled fourth passive two-terminal electronics component, which joins the much better known resistor, capacitor, and inductor.  The memristor, a device whose resistance varies with the direction of current applied, was first formulated in a 1971 paper by University of California, Berkley professor Leon Chua.  It went unimplemented until 2008, when a team at HP labs, led by R. Stanley Williams, created a working prototype.

Now, just three years after that landmark discovery HP appears to be aggressively moving towards commercialization [1][2].   Mr. Williams at the 2011 International Electronics Forum conference in the southern Spanish city of Seville announced that memristor commercial products were now only 18 months away.

He comments, "We’re planning to put a replacement chip on the market to go up against flash within a year and a half and we also intend to have an SSD replacement available in a year and a half.  In 2014 possibly, or certainly by 2015, we will have a competitor for DRAM and then we’ll replace SRAM.  Flash is a done deal, now we’re going after DRAM, and we think we can do two orders of magnitude improvement in terms of switching energy per bit."

HP's thin film memristor process, which creates components at a 5 nm scale, can deposit 500 billion memristors within a single chip layer.  What this means is that layers of memristor non-volatile storage (akin to NAND flash) and memristor RAM can be placed directly atop the CPU and GPU cores in system-on-a-chip designs.  Using faster direct interconnects and scrapping the system bus for anything other than I/O, these future memristor enabled SoCs could deliver drastic battery life and processing power leaps over the hardware currently found in smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

HP memristor
HP was the first to implement the memristor -- a fourth passive circuit element.  Now it looks to be the first to bring that product to market. [Source: Wired via Nature/HP]

Comments Mr. Williams, "We put the non-volatile memory right on top of the processor chip, and, because you’re not shipping data off-chip, that means we get the equivalent of 20 years of Moore’s Law performance improvement.  We’re running hundreds of wafers through the fab.  We’re way ahead of where we thought we would be at this moment in time."

HP currently owns a key patent [U.S. Patent 7443711] on its memristor implementation and the process to build it.  And it has more patents pending.  Mr. Williams says HP's plan is not to return to the components business where it was once a strong player, but rather to license the technology to interested components manufacturers.

He comments, "We're the world’s largest purchaser of DRAM and the second largest buyer of flash and we’re trying to disrupt and re-arrange our supply chain. The plan is to license this technology to anyone who wants it, and we'll teach them how to make it. But you'll have to stand in line, we have a bunch of people queued for it. We're doing this because, frankly, we didn't see a hell of a lot of innovation happening out there."

Android lineup
The next generation of smartphones may use HP's memristor tech to deliver unparalleled speed and battery life. [Source: Voiceable]

Of course, since HP is negotiating the licensing deals, it could potentially broker exclusivity arrangements, giving it first access to the best memristor-enabled SoCs.

According to Mr. Williams, the competition is fierce.  He points out that Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (SEO 005930) is trying to come up with a rival memristor implementation of its own.  He describes, "Samsung has an even larger group working on this than we do."

The arrival of memristor-enabled hardware appears poised to be "the next big thing" in the mobile electronics market over the next five years.  For all its company's struggles, it's important to acknowledge HP Labs' groundbreaking work that's making this advance at last possible after almost four decades.

Source: Electronics Weekly

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