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The Fourth Element: Tech Revolution of 2014?

Posted on Sep 15, 2013 in Highlighted, Physics, Science, Technology, The Big Story

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fourth-element

Memristor: mark that word. In 2014, consumers may get their hands on a new kind of storage that will make hard drives and solid state drives obsolete.

Memristor-based drives will surpass the current crop of drives with super-fast speeds, much higher capacities, reliability and low power consumption. Their promise for long-term is even rosier.

What is a memristor? Why is it called the fourth element? How may it start the next evolution of computers?

2013: Hard Disc Drives & Solid State Drives


After 80 years, the hard disk drive looks tired. The long boot times of PCs and laptops with the accompanying whirrs and grinds reminds us that. With old age it is also prone to occasional loss of memory or even a crash. But, it’s still a reliable friend that holds terabytes of cherished data.

Its younger relative, the flash memory-based solid state drive is zippier, drinks less power and is quieter. It has no moving parts, like the hard disk drive.

SSD, however, has its own problems. It’s not cheap, small and it has difficulty growing in size. You can only write and erase stuff on an SSD so many times: In techno-speak, as you scale up SSDs, their rated P/E (Program-Erase) cycles drops.

2014-15: Enter Memristor


memristor-hp

HP may be the first company to release memristor-based drives, possibly in late 2014 or early 2015.

It’s too early to speculate on disk capacity or price. However, we do know the following.

Mmemristor-based drives will consume much less power, offering more battery life and less overheating.

They are capable of enormous storage capacities: Forget terabytes, petabytes will be possible on memristor drives within a decade. A few petabytes will be enough to store every movie, TV show and music ever recorded. Think of what a future Snowden might do with that!

More importantly, memristor drives will make disk errors and corrupted data a distant memory.

Besides HP, IBM is also working on the technology, although no word on when Big Blue will have a real product.

What is a Memristor?


All electronic circuits are made of three types of circuit elements. Even the most complex computer chip is merely a collection of circuits assembled from the same three elements.

The first is a resistor. A toaster oven, the filament in an incandescent bulb, the heating element in an electric iron are all examples of a resistor at work.  Resistors resist electric current. They wind up converting some of the electrical energy into heat.

The second is a capacitor. That cordless electric toothbrush or that power mat which charges tablets and smartphones are examples of capacitors at work. When electricity is passed through a capacitor, it captures and stores energy as an electric charge.

The third is an inductor. The old-style sensors that magically opened the automatic door when we step on the mat, the traffic lights which are activated by a waiting car, electrical transformers— they are examples of inductors at work. Inductors store energy in a magnetic field, when electricity is passed through them. Since electromagnetic fields are deadly to them, inductors are rarely found in modern electronics.

Resistor, capacitor and inductor—these are the three elements used to create every circuit, electrical and electronic.

Memristor small

Memristor

Forty years ago, Leon Chua proposed a fourth element, which made circuit theory more comprehensive and elegant— memristor. In theory, the memristor behaves based on not what’s happening now, but what happened to it in the past.

For instance, a memristor may resist electric current based not on the voltage now, but on the voltage it was subjected to before it was switched off last time. Hence its name— memory+resistor: memristor.

Now, memristor was a theory to make the scientific model complete. Many people believed that we will not find anything in real life with the “magical” property of remembering the past.

HP-MemristorAll that changed in 2008, when HP scientists created a memristor on a thin-film of titanium oxide.

On the right, image of a memristor captured by an atomic scale microscope at HP Labs by R. Stanley Williams.

In 2010, HP made the first step toward commercializing the memristor with a storage device.

By 2012 and 2013, HP was readying to release  memristor-based drives to replace flash-based drives in 2014.

How fast will these drives be? In order to get an idea, scientists believe that memristor-based memory to be fast enough to replace DRAM as system memory. Yes, RAM which is thousands of times faster than a solid state drive.

Memristors also will bring relief to massive data centers operated by the likes of Google, Microsoft, and of course, our beloved National Security Agency tracking all our phone calls and e-mails. Google processes petabytes of data everyday. In the near future, a single memristor-based drive may be able capture petabytes of data.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have…

your entire music collection, uncompressed at 1.2 Mbps and not a selection at measly 128 kbps on your cellphone? Or,

a couple of dozen 4k movies on a tablet for a month-long trip? Or,

not both a hard disc and an SSD, so you can have both speed and capacity, but to have a single, reliable, silent, lightning-quick, super-high-density drive on your PC?


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