HP Labs Outlines Breakthroughs in Memristor Chip Research

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2010-04-08

HP Labs Outlines Breakthroughs in Memristor Chip Research

At the Flash Memory Summit in August 2009, updates on several new technologies involving NAND flash were presented to conference attendees. One of them was given by Stan Williams, Hewlett-Packard senior fellow and director of Quantum Science Research, and it involved something called the "memristor," a term condensed from "memory resistor."

On that day, Williams described the memristor this way: "This is sort of the missing element of the processor puzzle. It takes its place alongside the resistor, capacitor and inductor [as the fourth basic circuit element in chip engineering]. And it could change the way we do IT."

In summary, let's just say adding a memristor to a solid-state NAND flash drive can be like putting it on steroids.

Since flash media already owns the fastest I/O speeds known to IT science, increasing that speed tenfold or by a higher magnitude-HP's conservative estimate at this time-is certainly an intriguing proposition for processor engineers and IT systems makers.

On April 8, HP Labs published an update on advances in memristor research. These findings are also detailed in a paper published the same week in the journal "Nature" and written by Williams and five other researchers who work at HP's Information and Quantum Systems Laboratory, headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif.

HP Labs has six other locations around the world, in Bangalore, India; Beijing; Haifa, Israel; Bristol, England; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Fusionopolis, Singapore.

Following two years of research, Williams and his team discovered that the memristor has more capabilities than was previously thought. The team said in its report that "in addition to being useful in storage devices, the memristor can perform logic, enabling computation to one day be performed in chips where data is stored, rather than on a specialized central processing unit."

Bringing the logic closer to the data is key

The idea of distributing logic directly into a dedicated processor, instead of exclusively in a CPU somewhere away from the data, is a revolutionary move. Where data and processors are physically close is always where the best performance is found. Google's home-grown systems have proven this for more than a decade.

"Memristive devices could change the standard paradigm of computing by enabling calculations to be performed in the chips where data is stored," Williams said. "Thus, we anticipate the ability to make more compact and power-efficient computing systems well into the future, even after it is no longer possible to make transistors smaller via the traditional Moore's Law approach."

State of the Memristor Art

Here are the highlights of the memristor update, according to HP Labs:

-HP has created development-ready architectures for memory chips using memristors and believes it is possible that devices incorporating the element could come to market within the next few years."

-HP researchers also have designed a new architecture within which multiple layers of memristor memory can be stacked on top of each other in a single chip. In five years, such chips could be used to create handheld devices that offer ten times greater embedded memory than exists today or to power supercomputers that allow work like movie rendering and genomic research to be done dramatically faster than Moore's Law suggests is possible.

-Eventually, memristor-based processors might replace the silicon in the smart display screens found in e-readers and could one day even become the successors to silicon on a larger scale.

-Memristors require less energy to operate and are faster than present solid-state storage technologies such as flash memory, and they can store at least twice as much data in the same area.

-Memristors are virtually immune toradiation, which can disrupt transistor-based technologies-making them an attractive way to enable ever smaller but ever more powerful devices.

-Because they do not "forget," memristors can enable [the creation of] computers that turn on and off like a light switch.

Far-reaching implications

The implications here as to the technology's potential impact on the IT world are enormous.

HP Labs has an impressive track record. Since its founding in 1966 by Bill Hewlett and David Packard, the lab has come up with ground-breaking technologies such as the pocket scientific calculator (1972), thermal inkjet printing (1984), RISC computer architecture (1986), the cordless mouse (1998) and the Jena Web tool kit for semantic Web developers (2000).

The next big Labs breakthrough looks like it will be the memristor, which HP bluntly described as "holding the potential to fundamentally change computer system design."

You can be sure that eWEEK will keep a close eye on this technology as it continues to develop.

To read a FAQ on memristor, go here. To see an article on this topic on the HP Labs site, go here. Finally, Williams gives a whiteboard talk (about 6 minutes) about memristors in this YouTube video.

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