The Company That Could Replace Flash Storage with Nanotubes

Nantero has been at work on a carbon nanotube-based replacement for flash and DRAM since 2001, and the company may finally be close to achieving its vision.

With a strength that’s 50 times greater than steel and speed that’s more than a hundred times faster than flash, carbon nanotubes have the potential to remake the memory market, with performance that could approach DRAM while offering theoretically unlimited endurance, according to Nantero CEO Greg Schmergel. With switching times measured in picoseconds, “the circuitry is the only limitation,” Schmergel told Enterprise Storage Forum.

Nantero has developed a production-ready process, signed nearly a dozen manufacturers and top chip companies as partners, and is producing test chips at production-ready yields for certain applications, according to Schmergel. The production process and partners are critical to the success of the technology, “given the enormity of the task,” he said.

The company’s technology is based on the work of co-founder and CTO Thomas Rueckes, who invented Nantero’s NRAM carbon nanotube memory concept and holds many of Nantero’s more than 160 patents. Nantero sees NRAM as a replacement for DRAM, SRAM and flash memory. Promising applications include high-density fast cache for servers, SSDs and storage.

Most of Nantero’s partners haven’t been announced, but two that have been named are Schlumberger and Lockheed Martin, companies that require data reliability and performance under extreme conditions such as energy exploration and military and aerospace applications. Manufacturing partners include “brand-name manufacturers that everybody’s heard of,” said Schmergel.

IBM has been developing nanotube technology as a silicon replacement in transistors, while Samsung’s research is more competitive with Nantero. “We’re far ahead,” Schmergel said. “We’re doing work in production fabs, not research.”

Nantero claims the “world’s only CMOS-compatible nanotubes,” said Schmergel. Iron-based nanotubes are not allowed in production fabrication plants, so Nantero has purified its nanotubes to less than 1 part per billion of metallic contaminants.

Possible applications include a new cache layer in server and storage architectures. Consumer applications might include smartphones and tablets, or laptops and desktops that boot instantly.

The technology requires no refreshes, unlike DRAM, and with dramatically lower power consumption – 99.999% lower, to be exact – it also offers power and cooling advantages.

Pricing is expected to be higher than DRAM initially, “but we expect to be competitive with DRAM much faster as volumes ramp, given the greater simplicity of the structure and the manufacturing process,” said Schmergel. “Parity with flash will take longer.”

Paul Shread is editor in chief of the IT Business Edge network.

Paul Shread
Paul Shread
eSecurity Editor Paul Shread has covered nearly every aspect of enterprise technology in his 20+ years in IT journalism, including an award-winning series on software-defined data centers. He wrote a column on small business technology for, and covered financial markets for 10 years, from the dot-com boom and bust to the 2007-2009 financial crisis. He holds a market analyst certification.
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