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Nanoelectronics September 2016 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Nick Evans

Phase-Change-Memory Developments

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Innovation within the field of computer memory is necessary in order to cope with the demands that exponentially increasing volumes of data are placing on current technology. IBM's research into phase-change memory could provide that innovation.

Description

In May 2016, IBM announced a substantial breakthrough in its research into high-speed phase-change-memory (PCM) systems. PCM involves the application of an electric current to a material that is capable of changing phase—from amorphous to crystalline or vice versa. The state of the material represents either a 1 or a 0—using the same principles that many other memory technologies employ. For the first time, scientists at IBM's Zurich research laboratories were able to store three bits of data per cell reliably at high temperatures (75°C) and after 1 million endurance cycles. Previously, PCM was capable of storing only 1 bit of information per cell.

This dramatic increase in density brings the cost of PCM significantly below that of DRAM and closer to that of Flash—the two memory technologies that currently dominate the electronics industry. However, unlike DRAM, PCM is nonvolatile—it does not lose information when unconnected from a power source. It also exhibits significant advantages over Flash memory—enduring at least 10 million write cycles, in comparison with approximately 3,000 for flash USB drives.

Implications

IBM's advance could have almost immediate implications for the industry. Intel and Micron are in the process of commercializing their nonvolatile 3D X-Point technology, which many industry analysts expect to go on to dominate the memory market. 3D X-point is set for release in 2016 under the name Optane. IBM's PCM technology is not, admittedly, as commercially mature. However, despite 3D X-point's head start, IBM's PCM could pose a commercial threat when it does arrive on the market. IBM's greatest problem may be the fabrication of the product—it currently does not have high-volume PCM-manufacturing capabilities and would likely have to partner with a large player that does have. SK Hynix, Toshiba, and Samsung appear to offer the most obvious fit.

IBM's scientists envisage a range of applications for PCM technology. For example it could function as a stand-alone memory system or in conjunction with existing technologies such as Flash for a variety of hybrid applications. IBM uses a mobile phone to illustrate this point—the operating system of the phone could store in PCM, "enabling the phone to launch in a few seconds"; Flash memory could find use in the storage of other data such as photos or music. Other potential applications include applications in which speed is essential—such as machine-learning algorithms, transactions in the financial sector, or applications in which large sets of data need processing within a short time frame.

Impacts/Disruptions

IBM claims that its breakthrough is the first example of "a universal memory with properties of both DRAM and flash." The creation of a universal memory—one that can operate quickly, can support unlimited read/write cycles, requires no power to retain data, and is sufficiently large for common operating systems—is a "grand challenge" of the IC industry. Success in this field would prove highly disruptive across the whole electronics industry, immediately rendering current memory technology obsolete.

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: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Memory, integrated circuit, electronic device, big data

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Carbon-Nanotube Commercialization

By Alastair Cunningham
Cunningham is an independent consultant specializing in nanomaterials and electronics.

Why is this topic significant?

Carbon nanotubes hold considerable promise in the electronics industry. Recent developments demonstrate how the material is moving closer to reaching this potential by enabling a range of flexible electronic and battery applications.

Description

"Carbon-Nanotube Transparent-Conductive Films" in the February 2015 Viewpoints discusses Canatu's development of a transparent conductive film that exhibits a thickness of 25 micrometers (µm). In May 2016, the Finnish carbon-nanotubes (CNTs) player announced further advances with its CNB Flex Film products—marketing a new film that has a thickness of just 12 µm. Canatu claims that a key advantage that this material has over alternative transparent conductive solutions—such as indium tin oxide or metallic films—is that it is highly flexible, enabling "folding and forming without any interference to conductivity." Canatu's films exhibit an optical transmittance of 95%, a sheet resistivity of 100 ohms per square, and only a 1% change in sheet resistivity after 150,000 bends at a folding radius of 1 millimeter.

CNTs also find use in other electronics applications. For example, in May 2016, OCSiAl announced the results of experiments that demonstrate how the addition of Tuball—OCSiAl's proprietary single-wall CNT product—to lead-acid-battery electrodes can have a dramatic effect on battery performance. The use of Tuball leads to an increase in battery capacity of 30% (or a doubling of capacity at high discharge rates), as well as an increase in battery lifetime by a factor of 4.5 in comparison with the lifetime of cells that employ standard electrodes. OCSiAl claims that the increased lifetime is a result of "a drastic decrease in sulfation, as well as high conductivity and mechanical reinforcement of electrode structure with the added nanotubes."

Implications

Flexible electronic technology is already at a level at which functioning devices are a reality. However, durability is a key barrier to commercialization. Canatu's new product may go some way to addressing this issue. Indeed, in May 2016, Canatu announced that it is working with E Ink to "offer a line of flexible touch displays for the wearable market," and that initial products would be ready for customer sampling in July 2016.

Lead-acid batteries account for over 60% of the global battery market (primarily from automotive applications). Significant enhancements in performance resulting from the use of Tuball could prove particularly lucrative for OCSiAl if it were to establish a strong position in this market. Moreover, this development perhaps vindicates OCSiAl's strategy of providing free samples to customers for developmental purposes. When potential commercial applications arise, OCSiAl will find itself in the best position to capitalize on these opportunities.

Impacts/Disruptions

The material properties of CNTs make them inherently interesting to stakeholders in the electronics industry. However, the vast majority of the multi-billion-dollar market for CNTs centers on composite applications. The advent of novel derivatives such as CNB films and the large-scale production of pure single-wall CNTs such as Tuball are likely to facilitate the increased use of CNTs in electronics applications. More exotic applications—such as CNT interconnects or CNT transistors—have the potential to disrupt several aspects of the IC industry. However, the transition from academic research to commercial product for these applications will not occur in the near- to medium-term future.

Scale of Impact

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

Time of Impact

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

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Energy storage, nanomaterial, display, flexible electronics, wearables

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: