Bringing the memristor to market

HP to collaborate with Hynix on next generation memory


By Simon Firth

Palo Alto, 31 August, 2010 -- HP today announced that it has entered into a joint development agreement with Hynix Semiconductor Inc., a world leader in the manufacture of computer memory, to bring memristor technology to market.

Memristors represent a fourth basic passive circuit element. They existed only in theory until 2006 – when researchers in HP Labs’ Information and Quantum Systems Laboratory (IQSL) first intentionally demonstrated their existence.

Memory chips created with memristor technology have the potential to run considerably faster and use much less energy than Flash memory technologies, says Dr. Stanley Williams, HP Senior Fellow and IQSL founding Director.

“We believe that the memristor is a universal memory that over time could replace Flash, DRAM, and even hard drives,” he says.

Uniting HP’s world-class research and IP with a first-rate memory manufacturer will allow high-quality, memristor-based memory to be developed quickly and on a mass scale, Williams adds.

“HP’s new collaboration with Hynix is only the most recent example of the company’s ability to drive innovations from its labs out into the commercial world,” notes Prith Banerjee, senior vice president of research at HP and director of HP Labs.

“HP Labs is all about driving discovery and invention with clear purpose,” he says. “And here, in taking memristors from lab to fab, we have another major contribution to science that is likely to change the face of IT, too.”

From lab to fab

The agreement between HP and Hynix will see them jointly developing memristor technology in the form of Resistive Random Access Memory (ReRAM). ReRAM is a non-volatile memory built using materials that change resistance when a voltage is applied across them.

“People have been attempting to make resistive memory for a long time,” explains Williams. “But because they didn’t understand that the devices they had were memristors, they weren’t making good progress. Once you understand the mathematical framework for memristors, you can design circuits that perform the way they are intended to perform.”

That understanding, along with deep theoretical knowledge and practical experimental expertise, are part of what HP is sharing with Hynix, says Williams. “It’s not just the memristor,” he notes, “there’s also architecture, circuit design, error correction coding – we’re bringing the complete package.”

Working with Hynix will be a true partnership, adds Williams.

“We’re going to be working shoulder to shoulder with each other over a number of years,” he says. “In fact, personnel from my lab will be going over to Korea and living there to help make this work. We’re committed to working together very closely to get a working product ready for the marketplace in as short a time frame as possible.”

A competitor for flash

Memristors have extraordinary potential. Research from the IQSL team published earlier this year showed that, in addition to acting as memory devices, memristors can also perform logic functions. This suggests that computation might eventually be performed where data is stored, rather than on a specialized central processing unit – something that could result in computers running significantly faster than at present.

In the nearer term, the most obvious application for memristor technology is as a replacement for flash memory. Memristor memory chips promise to run at least ten times faster and use ten times less power than an equivalent flash memory chip, says Williams.

Experiments in his lab also suggest that memristor memory can be erased and written over many more times than flash memory. And on top of that, says Williams, “we believe we can create memristor ReRAM products that, at any price point, will have twice the capacity of flash memory.”

An HP advantage

Laboratory trials conducted at HP Labs have shown that memristor ReRAM chips can be made using existing semiconductor manufacturing processes. And the HP team is confident that such chips will be easily swappable for flash memory – so products won’t need to be redesigned before they can enjoy the benefits in speed and power use that memristor chips promise to provide.

But a deep understanding of memristors will allow equipment-makers to take fuller advantage of the special qualities that memristors exhibit, suggests Williams.

For example, he says, “you can shift your wiring protocols to take maximal advantage of the electrical qualities of the memristor.” He predicts that such knowledge will give HP – a company that uses memory chips in just about every product it sells – a significant time-to-market advantage over its competitors.

At the same time, says Williams, HP isn’t planning to become a memory chip maker itself, or to restrict the licensing of its memristor technology.

“Our long term goal,” he explains, “is to see this technology spread through the entire IT ecosystem.”

A new model for R&D

In an unconventional move, HP and Hynix plan to begin jointly developing memristor technology in a range of areas and then choose the first products in which to deploy it later in the development cycle.

It’s a reversal of the typical joint development process that usually fixes on a specific product that will be developed from the get-go. That reflects the unusually broad potential of this new technology. And, more practically, it has the potential to significantly speed up the development process.

New technologies typically take 15-20 years to get into the marketplace, explains Williams. “We began this work in 2006 and we’re aspiring to have a product ready by 2013,” he says. “That’s only seven years. So we’re compressing a normal R&D timetable by a factor of two.”

“This really is an exciting time at HP Labs,” adds HP Labs director Banerjee. “Taking our pure research and speedily driving it into the marketplace really is what we are all about. This agreement is a big win for the company, too. Practically everything that HP sells has some sort of memory in it: printers, PCs and enterprise systems – so there’s very little that HP makes that won’t in some way be touched by this.”