HP, Hynix team on flash memory replacement

Hynix signs on to manufacture the once-theoretical memory resistor developed in HP Labs. The first commercial product will arrive in "three to five years."

An image of a circuit with 17 memristors captured by an atomic force microscope.
An image of a circuit with 17 memristors captured by an atomic force microscope. HP Labs

Hewlett-Packard is sitting on a new kind of technology that may one day replace flash memory, but has yet to mass produce it. That appears about to change.

HP has chosen Hynix to manufacture the once-theoretical circuit technology known as a memristor, the companies plan to announce Tuesday.

Together HP and Seoul-based Hynix will develop the memristor and sell it commercially as a new memory technology called ReRAM, or resistive random access memory. The first products will be available in anywhere from three to five years, according to R. Stanley Williams, the director of HP Labs' Information and Quantum Systems Laboratory.

The memristor--short for "memory resistor"--was first discovered in the 1970s in the labs of the University of California, Berkeley. It was only a theoretical possibility at that point, considered the fourth type of electric circuit after the resistor, capacitor, and inductor. But in 2008, researchers at HP Labs built one for the first time.

This fourth type of circuit is found to store twice as much data and use less energy than flash memory, which is used widely in portable devices today. Plus, memristors don't lose their charge and aren't affected by radiation.

Flash memory capabilities double roughly every 12 to 18 months, but it won't go on forever, says Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds. Flash, he said, "is running out of steam." That is, at some point, flash memory cells will get so small that they can't get any smaller and still fit the necessary electronics on them.

Memristors are a "stackable" technology, which means memory cells can be built in multiple instead of single layers, thereby increasing the amount of storage.

As for what kinds of devices memristor-based ReRAM will be used for, that's still to be determined. But think of any application in which flash or DRAM is currently being used, said HP's Williams.

"We are targeting a product that will have at least twice the capacity of whatever flash is available" at that time, he said. "It's a moving target."

Hynix is one of the world's largest producers of flash memory and will punch out memristors on behalf of HP on the same production lines the company currently uses for other memory products. HP and Hynix are already well-acquainted through partnerships on many other products, which is why they've teamed up yet again. But the main reason for the partnership is that HP doesn't want to get into the memory business itself.

"We think it will allow us to make HP products that are much better for our customers," Williams said. "We're not getting into the memory business ourselves. We want to ensure our supply chain can deliver components to us that we can deliver to our products."

It's reminiscent of what another high-powered device maker has been doing for the last few years: Apple and its "own and control" philosophy. Besides a proprietary operating system and hardware, Apple has created or modified its own battery and chip technology, not to mention customized displays, manufacture processes, and materials that help it set its products apart from competitors.

With its own memory technology, HP could be starting to do just that when it comes to mobile devices and portable computing (it just bought its own mobile operating system too). Except it's licensing the technology to a partner, who will sell it to HP's competitors. But HP will still wield an advantage.

"When Hynix goes into production anybody will be able to buy (ReRAM), however we might get special parts," said Williams. "It's possible we'll have parts with a special interface to make our products different than what's available in general market."

About the author

Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur. E-mail Erica.

 

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