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Start-up aims nanotube memory at iPods, phones and servers

NRAM to rise in '08

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SC07 The thought of introducing filthy carbon nanotubes into an ultra-sensitive fab has blocked the rise of so-called NRAM or Nano Random Access Memory. Thanks, however, to a refined cleansing process and relentless browbeating start-up Nantero thinks it has mainstream semiconductor players close to giving NRAM a try. In fact, the company is promising that NRAM could appear in consumer goods next year.

Quite frankly, we're skeptical that Nantero's plans will advance at the predicted pace. The company finds itself in the "emerging technologies" section of the Supercomputing conference alongside an optical networking research effort at IBM and D-Wave's quantum computer. When you're still "emerging" at a show where cutting edge technology is commonplace, then there's plenty of room between your company and broad acceptance.

That said, Nantero has been plugging away at NRAM since 2001 and believes it has developed techniques capable of easing potential partners' concerns.

Viable NRAM products could provide a real boost to governments, businesses and consumer device makers. The NRAM technology makes it possible to create cheap, dense, energy-efficient non-volatile memory. And, unlike non-volatile Flash, NRAM does not degrade after 10,000 to 1m writes.

Nantero's approach to making the NRAM gear starts with carbon nanotubes bought from a variety of suppliers. The company works to remove the numerous impurities present in the nanotubes via a proprietary process where the nanotubes are suspended in a solution.

The cleansed nanotubes are then arranged in two layers where a bed of parallel nanotube rows sits in silicon with another set of perpendicular nanotube rows above it. To get 1s and 0s, Nantero puts the carbon tube molecules in and out of contact with each other by pumping in an electrical charge that makes the tubes bend via van der Waals forces.

When the tubes are apart, you get a 0, and when they're connected with a lowered electrical resistance, you get a 1.

So far, Nantero has crafted prototype devices with up to 10bn suspended nanotube junctions on one silicon wafer. And the company can produce these wafers using standard semiconductor manufacturing gear.

"It's just kind of a direct materials replacement," Gerry Taylor, director of government special projects at Nantero, told us.

Speaking of government projects, the Feds have a lot of interest in NRAM because of its longevity and density. Flash, while glorious, does degrade over time as insulators wear down due to charge fluctuations. Memory loss on a satellite or weapons system can be a real pain.

If the NRAM play works, Nantero expects the memory to replace, Flash, DRAM and hard disks. "Possible uses include the enabling of instant-on computers, which boot and reboot instantly, as well as high-density portable memory - MP3 players with 1000s of songs, PDAs with 10 gigabytes of memory, high-speed network servers and much more," the company says on its web site.

"Flash is a very good market for us to jump into," Taylor said. "We're better than or equal to flash in basically every category."

It's flash that Taylor expects NRAM to replace in "one to one and a half years."

Nantero has attracted the attention of some big name tech players, including HP, LSI and ON Semiconductor. These companies are either experimenting with NRAM in their R&D labs or actually trying to produce NRAM chips.

Nantero will rely on licensing out the NRAM technology rather than producing devices on its own and claims a deep patent portfolio to keep its techniques safe from competitors.

While NRAM sounds lovely, other companies are working on competing technology such as FeRAM (ferroelectric RAM), MRAM (magnetic) and PRAM (phase-change). ®

Register editor Ashlee Vance has just pumped out a new book that's a guide to Silicon Valley. The book starts with the electronics pioneers present in the Bay Area in the early 20th century and marches up to today's heavies. Want to know where Gordon Moore eats Chinese food, how unions affected the rise of microprocessors or how Fairchild Semiconductor got its start? This is the book for you - available at Amazon US here or in the UK here.

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