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Nanoelectronics August 2015 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Alastair Cunningham

Memristors: Commercial and Academic Developments

Why is this topic significant?

Memristor technology holds great potential in the field of nanoelectronics. Recent developments, both commercial and academic, demonstrate this potential and highlight the difficulties in realizing viable commercial opportunities.

Description

Memristors—essentially nanoelectronic components whose resistance is dependent on the volume and direction of electric charge that has already passed through the circuit—are particularly useful for data-storage applications. Despite many promises, heavy investment in memristors by HP over a period of years has yet to result in any commercial products. In June 2015, the electronics player announced that it is further delaying the release of this technology to an unspecified future date.

In May 2015, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published the results of their research into the use of memristors as connections in a simple functional artificial-neural circuit—mimicking how the human brain performs tasks. The research—which appeared in the scientific journal Nature—represents a significant development in the field of artificial intelligence. The scientists demonstrated, for the first time, that a circuit of approximately 100 artificial synapses is capable of performing a simplified version of a standard human activity—in this case, image classification. The circuit could distinguish between, and classify, three symbols—the letters n, v, and z—under a variety of stylizations and distortions. The researchers claim that their next step will involve the integration of their memristor-based artificial neural network with existing silicon-based computing technology in order to enable more complex demonstrations.

Implications

The further delay in the implementation of memristors at HP is a major setback for the company—it originally planned to commercialize this technology in 2013. Despite the high potential, the technology appears to be fraught with technical issues, and HP's strategy of banking on memristors to underpin its "Machine" supercomputer project could prove highly risky.

The University of California research represents a small but important step in the development of artificial intelligence. It is an important proof of concept that could generate interest in the field and momentum for further research. Despite the circuit's containing only 100 synapses (in comparison with the 1014 in the human brain), the research demonstrates the potential power of exploiting biomimetic techniques and incorporating them into computing processes. However, this work remains at a fundamental level and is unlikely to make any commercial impact in the short to medium term.

Impacts/Disruptions

Memristors—as part of an artificial neural network or as part of a more standard system—have the potential to play a major role in the future of advanced computing techniques. The technology could provide competition to other, more long-term, prospects such as quantum computing, photonic computing, or self-assembly-based computing techniques—none of which can currently contend with well-established silicon technology. Potential applications of such advanced computing capabilities could include medical imaging, improved navigation systems, facial-recognition systems, advanced encryption techniques, and internet searches based on images rather than text.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Electronics, health, defense, data storage

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Nanoelectronic Wearables and E-Skins

Why is this topic significant?

Wearable electronics and nanoelectronic patches could find use in a wide range of products, services, and applications. Recent developments could accelerate commercialization in this domain.

Description

In May 2015, an international collaboration of research groups—led by Professor Monica Craciun of the Centre for Graphene Science at the University of Exeter—published the results of its research into the use of graphene for wearable applications. According to Professor Craciun, the team's technique—which involves transferring graphene from copper substrates to fibers that commonly find use in the textiles industry—represents the first example of "a textile electrode being truly embedded in a yarn." Graphene is a lightweight and high-strength material that is durable and exhibits an extremely high electrical conductivity—making it perfect for wearable applications.

Several recent reports also comment on developments in the field of e-skin—flexible electronic patches for biomedical applications. For example, in May 2015, Professor Ting Zhang presented a novel form of e-skin at the 4th International Conference on Bio-Sensing Technology in Lisbon, Portugal. The transparent patch-like device, which includes both carbon nanotubes and graphene, is capable of registering small variations in pressure—giving rise to potential real-time blood-pressure sensors or heart-rate monitors.

Implications

The research under way at the University of Exeter has the potential to hasten the commercialization of wearable electronic devices and products. Any large-scale commercialization of wearable electronic materials or devices that function using transparent nanomaterial electrodes embedded into fibers could also have major implications for manufacturers of graphene or carbon nanotubes—opening up new, potentially high-volume, markets for these materials.

The introduction of e-skin devices for medical applications would also have a range of direct implications for the health-care industry and could represent a significant step toward the delivery of personalized health care. Cheap patches could result in patients' continually monitoring a range of conditions, enabling medical practitioners to identify effective treatments and reducing pressure on the existing health-care infrastructure.

Impacts/Disruptions

Product-durability issues—especially important for wearables—provide a key barrier to the commercialization of flexible electronic devices. The use of high-strength materials such as graphene could remove this barrier and accelerate the commercialization process.

The widespread introduction of textile-integrated electronics could prove highly disruptive across a number of industries. Any sector—from the automotive industry to home/office furnishings—that makes use of textiles could also exploit these novel functionalities to create a range of new products and services. In general, such products could further advance the hyperconnectivity revolution that the advent of smartphones set in motion.

In addition to novel consumer-electronic products, health care and military applications will be at the forefront of research in this field. Nanoelectronic patches could result in the beginning of a new era in health monitoring and could represent a step toward the democratization of health care in developing countries. Relatively cheap e-skin patches have the potential, to some extent, to replace the need for large numbers of trained professionals and well-equipped facilities.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunitites in the following industry areas:

Consumer electronics, organic electronics, textiles, defense, health, automotive, home furnishing

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: