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NRAM set to spark a 'holy war' among memory technologies

Lucas Mearian | Jan. 13, 2017
Your next smartphone could be a carbon-based lifeform

A non-volatile memory technology based on carbon nanotubes that's poised for commercialization in 2018 is expected to be more disruptive to enterprise storage, servers and consumer electronics than flash memory, according to a new report from BCC Research.

"It is rare to see a technology catch fire after so long in development, but NRAM appears poised to do just that," said BCC Research editorial director Kevin Fitzgerald. "In fact, your next smartphone could be a carbon-based lifeform."

The BCC report predicts the overall Nano RAM (NRAM) market will see a compound annual growth rate of 62.5% between 2018 and 2023, with the embedded systems market in which it will be used expected to grow from $4.7 million in 2018 to $217.6 million in 2023. That would represent a combined annual growth rate over those five years of 115.3%.

Invented in 2001 by Woburn, Mass.-based Nantero Inc., NRAM is claimed to have 1,000 times the performance of DRAM but stores data like NAND flash memory; when the power is turned off, the data remains.

Nantero NRAM memory  

An NRAM chip.

NRAM is up against an abundant field of new memory technologies that are expected to challenge NAND flash in speed, endurance and capacity, according to Jim Handy, principal analyst with semiconductor research firm Objective Analysis.

For example, Ferroelectric RAM (FRAM) has already shipped in high volume; IBM has developed Racetrack Memory; Intel, IBM and Numonyx have all produced Phase-Change Memory (PCM); Magnetoresistive Random-Access Memory (MRAM) has been under development since the 1990s; Hewlett-Packard and Hynix have been developing ReRAM, also called Memristor; and Infineon Technologies has been working on Conductive-Bridging RAM (CBRAM).

nram fabric 100588494 orig 

An illustration of the NRAM cell (left) and photos taken of the carbon nanotube fabric with an electronmicroscop (right).

"These guys are in for a battle of holy war proportions," BCC Research’s senior editor and report co-author Chris Spivey said via email. "Each of these memories can be used in many different ways -- and so they will compete (eventually) across the board. And so as battles end only one will likely remain extant."

In a published Q&A, Spivey said the most exciting aspect of NRAM is the movement from silicon to carbon-based memory, "which can evidently be carried out seamlessly on traditional CMOS foundries and also, it seems, even in logic foundries. This ushers in an era of potential mass customization."

BCC Research agrees that NRAM has the potential for mass customization, meaning a chip can be optimized for many specific tasks. That will enable things like cheap, abundant autonomous IoT sensors as well as memory for the smartphone industry, embedded ASICS for automobiles and even headphones that store music intrinsically.


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