Nantero's carbon nanotube memory breakthrough

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) for storage? Yes! Nantero is announcing NRAM, a CNT-based memory faster and more durable than flash, as fast and lower power than DRAM, and fabricated on standard DRAM lines.

After 14 years in stealth -- some kind of record -- Nantero's NRAM technology is having a coming out party today. NRSM could drive flash from the datacenter.

Who is Nantero?

Founded 2001, in production since 2004, with one of the largest patent portfolios in semiconductors, and installed in 7 major fabs, Nantero aims to be the ARM of non-volatile memory technology. They won't build chips, just license their technology to chip vendors, as the UK's ARM Holdings licenses its ARM system designs to Apple, Samsung and everyone else.

Most of their production to date has gone into military or specialized industrial applications. Need storage that works at the deep end of an oil well? NRAM.

What do they have?

Nantero says their technology has several key advantages.

  • Fast as DRAM - with much lower power consumption
  • Unlimited endurance
  • Non-volatility - >1000 years at 85C
  • Picosecond switching - as fast as any DRAM
  • Smaller feature sizes than flash - tested down to 5nm

Taken together, these attributes mean that NRAM can replace flash and DRAM. Imagine a system with one large, single tier of memory and storage, that doesn't need wear leveling and garbage collection like flash, without the energy sucking refresh cycles of DRAM.

What's handy is that NRAM can be fabricated on DRAM, flash and system production lines, with only the addition of a CNT bottle on the track. Nantero has 3D designs as well that could put a terabit - 128GB - on a single chip.

At very no added cost, compared to DRAM. "There are many mask layers and many complicated steps required to make a capacitor structure on DRAM. Instead we're replacing that with a just a layer of carbon nanotubes to store the data, replacing a high-cost element with a low-cost element," said Greg Schmergel, CEO of Nantero, when I spoke to him recently.

How does it work?

NRAM works like a light switch: a greater-than-read voltage is applied, causing the CNTs to physically move, creating or breaking connections. The CNT's physical strength protects them from damage.

CNTs conduct electricity as well as copper, while being stronger than steel and as hard as diamond. Nantero's process lays down a non-woven fabric of CNTs between two electrodes.

Thanks to quantum-level forces, a small but greater-than-read voltage will cause an NRAM cell at "0" to flip to a "1" and the same voltage causes a "1" to flip to a "0". Once flipped the CNT fabric is very stable.

Nantero believes that 1Tb chips are possible with multiple layers of CNT NRAM. NRAM's structural and electrical simplicity is the key.

The Storage Bits take

The race for a workable NVRAM is in its final stages. HP's memristor, Crossbar's RRAM and now, Nantero's NRAM, are all technically sound, backed by tens of millions of dollars in R&D, and close to broad market release.

Who wins? We all do. Flash is far from ideal as a storage medium, but its few advantages over disks have revolutionized data storage.

The new non-volatile storage-class memories will enable radically new system architectures that eliminate many of the traditional work arounds for slow data access. Even if CPUs don't get faster, NVRAM systems will.

Comments welcome, as always.

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