HP Engineers Claim 'Memristor' Breakthrough

HP Labs engineers claim they have discovered a long-sought circuit element that could lead to new ways of creating memory.

HP Labs engineers are claiming a breakthrough in the field of electrical engineering that could lead to an entirely new class of chip memory that might one day replace traditional DRAM technology.

In the journal Nature, engineers with HP Labs published a paper April 30 that details the discovery of a fourth fundamental circuit element within electrical engineering called a memristor, short for memory resistor.

Since Leon Chua, a well-known scientist working in the computer sciences department of the University of California at Berkley, first theorized about the existence of the memristor more than 35 years ago in an academic paper, other electrical engineers have been trying to prove that this element exists.

According to the paper from HP Labs, the memristor-an electrical resistor with memory properties that retain data it has received-is the fourth element of a circuit along with the capacitor, which stores energy in an electrical field; the resistor, which resists the flow of electricity; and the inductor, which resists any change to the flow of the electrical current. The properties of the memristor cannot be duplicated by a combination of the other three elements.

Although engineers have theorized about the memristor for decades, it was nearly impossible to observe without close observation of nanoscale devices.

"The proof of its existence remained elusive-in part because memristance is much more noticeable in nanoscale devices," said a summary of the research posted on Hewlett-Packard's Web site. "The crucial issue for memristance is that the device's atoms need to change location when voltage is applied, and that happens much more easily at the nanoscale."

HP Labs engineers, led by HP Senior Fellow Stanley Williams, were able to build a model of the memristor and then build nanoscale devices in the lab that demonstrated that the memristor did indeed exist, according to the company.

From a practical standpoint, microprocessors based on the memristor element could form a whole new class of memory chips that could replace DRAM (dynamic RAM). Under current conditions, a system that uses DRAM chips lacks the ability to retain memory in case of power failure.

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A DRAM system would have to retrieve data from a magnetic disk, which requires a slow boot and consumes a large amount of power. With memristor technology, a computer would retail all the data even after a power failure. It would also require less power to reboot after a failure.

This type of memory could prove additionally valuable as more companies turn toward cloud computing, in which a series of server and storage devices consumes a large amount of power and a power failure could wipe out data for an entire enterprise. A cloud system based on memristor technology could save power and ensure that data would be protected in case of a power failure.

The release of this paper on April 30 marks the first major announcement from HP Labs since Hewlett-Packard announced that it would reorganize its lab division in March to get researchers to focus on larger projects instead of smaller initiatives.