HP research could yield faster, more powerful PCs

Discovery from HP Labs into the untapped potential of the memristor chip could open the door for major advancements in the design and processing power of computers.

A new discovery by HP could lead to faster, more powerful computers and other devices in the near future.

Hewlett-Packard's HP Labs research branch has discovered that the memristor, a new electric circuit developed by HP in 2008, has far greater potential than initially thought, the company announced on Thursday.

Previously seen mostly as a new type of storage similar to flash memory, HP found that the memristor can also perform its own logic. Such a discovery can pave the way for chips that can both perform calculations and hold data, potentially eliminating the need for a traditional core CPU.

"Memristive devices could change the standard paradigm of computing by enabling calculations to be performed in the chips where data is stored rather than in a specialized central processing unit," said R. Stanley Williams, senior fellow and director of HP's Information and Quantum Systems Lab, in a statement. "Thus, we anticipate the ability to make more compact and power-efficient computing systems well into the future, even after it is no longer possible to make transistors smaller via the traditional Moore's Law approach."

First conceived as a theoretical possibility in the early '70s by Leon Chua, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, the memristor, short for memory resistor, can retain its memory even when power is lost. It's considered the fourth type of electric circuit joining the resistor, capacitor, and inductor, which are currently used in the design and manufacture of today's microchips.

An atomic force microscope image of a circuit with 17 memristors in a row. The memristor consists of two titanium dioxide layers connected to wires. When a current is applied to one, the resistance of the other changes. That change can be registered as data. Credit: J.J. Yang, HP Labs

Building on Chua's research, HP announced the first development of a memristor around two years ago. That was then followed by a flexible memristor designed and demonstrated by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology last summer.

HP's latest research has found that memristors use less energy and are faster than current storage technologies such as flash memory, and they can store twice as much data in the same space.

Memristors are virtually unaffected by radiation, which can create flaws in smaller, traditionally designed chips. And since memristors don't lose their charge, they can lead to PCs that can easily be turned on and off like a light switch, said HP.

What's next for the memristor? HP said it's already created new architectures for chips using memristors and believes that devices using the new circuit could hit the market within the next few years. Researchers at HP Labs have also built a new architecture in which multiple layers of memristors can be stacked on top of each other in one chip.

In another five years, such chips could give handheld devices 10 times the memory capacity they now have and help supercomputers work faster than Moore's Law ever thought possible. Beyond that, processors built with memristors could eventually replace the silicon used in e-reader displays and even push aside the need for silicon in a larger number of devices on a wider scale.

About the author

Journalist, software trainer, and Web developer Lance Whitney writes columns and reviews for CNET, Computer Shopper, Microsoft TechNet, and other technology sites. His first book, "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time," was published by Wiley & Sons in November 2012.

 

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