Memristor: the fourth circuit element

May 2, 2008 // 8:12 a.m.

Tags: #circuits #hewlett-packard #hp #hp-labs #memory #memristor

HP Labs hopes it has created the basis for a fourth basic integrated circuit element which promises to produce computing devices with instant startup and non-volatile memory.

Dubbed a 'memristor' – short for 'memory resistor' – the device joins the three most fundamental elements of circuits currently known: the resistor, capacitor, and inductor.

The groundwork for the device was started back in 1971 when Professor Leon Chua of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department of the University of California at Berkeley published a paper featuring a mathematical model showing the theory behind a memristor, but was unable to use the technology available at the time to actually prove its existence, much less create a viable example.

Since then, HP Labs has done a lot of work on nanoscale devices that exhibit memristance, and a team headed by R. Stanley Williams at the Information and Quantum Systems Lab believe they have finally cracked it. Williams describes the experience of finding “something so new and yet so fundamental in the very mature field of electrical engineering [...] a big surprise.”

Chua, author of the paper which lead to the teams work on memristor technology, describes the vindication of his theories an “amazing development,” and says “it took someone like Stan Williams with a multi-disciplinary background and deep insights to conceive of such a tiny memristor only a few atoms in thickness.

The team is already thinking of practical applications for this new electronic building block, starting with a replacement for the current volatile dynamic memory in computing devices. The memristor technology holds the promise of vast swathes of non-volatile storage with the same performance as today's DRAM but with a tiny power consumption – perfect for portable devices and for creating computers which can start from cold instantaneously.

How long it'll be before we actually start seeing the technology making an impact on purchasable devices remains to be seen – with such a fundamental change to the most basic building blocks of modern technology, it could take a while for engineers to get their heads around the new rules of the game.

If you're of a technical bent and would like to know more about the nitty-gritty of memristor technology and HP's research therein, the team's work has been published in the May edition of Nature magazine. And if you can follow what the heck the abstract is talking about, share your expertise over in the forums.
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