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Nantero's carbon-nanotube memory could replace SSDs and DRAM

Agam Shah | June 3, 2015
Nantero's new carbon-nanotube chips could replace DRAM, solid-state and hard drives in PCs, and bring more storage to wearables.

Nantero unveiled long-term plans for the carbon-nanotube chips on Tuesday, when it also announced it had received US$31.5 million in additional funding from Charles River Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Globespan Capital Partners, and Harris and Harris Group. The company has so far raised $78 million, and its advisors include Stefan Lai, a flash memory pioneer, and George Scalise, a former executive vice president at Apple.

In the last two years, Nantero has made the production of NRAM chips viable by reducing the manufacturing cost tenfold. Some manufacturers worldwide will be able to make the chips using the CMOS process, though Schmergel didn't name those companies.

However, Nantero faces challenge from other emerging memory types and developments in the fast-changing computing landscape.

The carbon-nanotube chips join a growing field of new memory types vying to replace DRAM and NAND flash, which analysts say could reach its last legs by 2022. As devices get smaller, it is becoming difficult to add more storage capacity while reducing the size of NAND flash chips.

Possible DRAM and NAND flash replacements like RRAM (resistive RAM) and MRAM (magnetoresistive RAM) are already being used on a limited basis, and phase-change memory (PCM) -- backed by IBM and Samsung -- is still being refined. NRAM chips can be shrunk easily due the small size of carbon nanotubes, so the technology doesn't face the same manufacturing challenges as other forms of memory, Schmergel said.

In research, carbon nanotubes have been shown to be extremely unstable, though Schmergel is confident that Nantero's technology could stand up to the rigors of everyday computing. Nantero found a working chemical composition for its memory by purifying carbon nanotubes in an aqueous solution after which the chips are manufactured on a silicon substrate.

There are also questions around the safety of carbon nanotubes, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other researchers warning against exposure. Schmergel says Nantero is purchasing carbon nanotubes for its chips from chemical manufacturers like Thomas Swan Company in the U.K., whose material has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nantero holds more than 175 patents in the area of carbon nanotubes, and has also partnered with HP, manufacturing tools maker ASML and semiconductor companies like On Semiconductor on the research and development of the new technology.

 

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