Since the invention of the transistor, silicon semiconductors have been king. But now silicon-based transistors are nearing the limit of their potential. Excess heat and manufacturing hurdles are impeding the development of ever-faster and -smaller processors. Advances in materials and chip design to resist extreme heat and move huge amounts of data, quickly, will be crucial. Experts are exploring three technologies to overcome these challenges: spintronics, graphene and memristors. They are what will someday make ultra-energy-efficient supercomputers small enough to fit anywhere—even in the palm of your hand.
Memristors will store large amounts of data and could make your computer boot instantly
Accessing data, whether stored in a spinning hard drive or in flash-based memory, is a time-suck and a power hog. The dynamic RAM that rapidly delivers data to the processor is almost maxed out. “Both technologies for the magnetic hard disk and D-RAM are within a few generations of hitting brick walls,” says R. Stanley Williams of HP Labs’s Information and Quantum Systems Lab. He believes that circuits called memristors could be the solution. Memristors recently joined the resistor, capacitor and inductor as the fourth fundamental circuit element. But unlike the others, a memristor has the unusual ability to remember the last resistance it held, even when the power is turned off. When the current starts up again, the resistance of the circuit will be the same as it was before, providing instant-on computers. After the memristor had spent some 30 years as a theory, Williams and his team designed the first one earlier this year. Five years from now, he says, the chips could sit in computers between D-RAM and hard disks to eliminate the boot-up process. Further down the road, memristors, which have higher storage densities than the best flash memory and faster write times than D-RAM, could supplant both technologies in one fell swoop.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.