NRAM Nears Maturation

Article By : Gary Hilson

Carbon nanotube based NRAM products ready to hit market in 2019, say pioneers Nantero

TORONTO — It’s been more than a year since a research reportcame out predicting a bright future for the next-generation memory using carbon nanotubes known as NRAM, and now the company that’s been pioneering the technology has followed up with new investment, support from high-profile tech vendors, and new products in the pipeline.

Nantero Inc. has received investment from eight strategic investors, five of which were participants in its most recent strategic round for a total of $29.7 million. They include Dell Technologies Capital, Cisco Investments, Kingston Technology Corporation, and CFT Capital, one of China’s leading semiconductor investment firms incorporated by SMIC, mainland China’s most advanced pure-play semiconductor foundry. “If you look at the investors, several of them are among the 10 largest buyers of ICs and memory in the world,” Nantero co-founder and CEO Greg Schmergel told EE Times in a telephone interview. “It speaks to the level of support from customers that are not niche players, but are mass-market leading players.”

He said that one of the most significant milestones for the company was Fujitsu Semiconductor and Mie Fujitsu Semiconductor committing to bring NRAM to market in 2019. Nantero already has more than a dozen partners and customers in the consumer electronics, enterprise systems, and semiconductor industries actively working on NRAM. Another milestone, said Schmergel, is Nantero’s 16-gigabit DDR4 compatible design that is price-competitive with DRAM because it uses a selector-free cross-point design. “That lets us do multiple layers of memory within the die. That product is initially being done at 28 nanometers, which is an advanced node, but not the most advanced node, but because it’s a multi-layer architecture. We can do that selector-free due in part to the unique characteristics of the carbon nanotube switch.”

Nantero is also working on a standalone chip designed as a cache for SSDs or HDDs, which removes the need for battery backup and significantly expands cache size and substantially speeds up the drive, said Schmergel. The company is also developing several embedded products, including a embedded nonvolatile memory that can scale to 5 nm in size and operate at DRAM-like speeds and under very high temperatures, making it ideal for automotive and Internet of Things applications.

NRAM Carbon Nanotube

Nantero’s proprietary, non-volatile NRAM is based on carbon nanotubes, and it has 16-gigabit DDR4 compatible design that is price-competitive with DRAM.

Schmergel said that NRAM’s non-volatility is just as important as its DRAM speed. “That’s a very big deal for all of the applications that we’re going into,” he said. “First of all, obviously, it saves tremendous power, since there’s no refresh needed. If you’re talking about a smartphone, that saves a lot of power and extends the battery life, and dramatically extends the standby battery life. If it’s in a server in a data center, you cut down on your power bill, but you also eliminate a lot of the heat problems, and then, even more importantly, you don’t need a battery backup, the supercapacitor backup, for the DRAM that is needed in many enterprise applications.”

Nantero’s business model is a pure IP licensing business model, and Schmergel said that, in most cases, customers are designing the product themselves, and Nantero is supporting them. He said that the company already has a customer that’s a world leader in the automotive arena that’s very excited about its memory for use in cars because it can survive in high temperatures. “Another area where we have intense discussions with customers is artificial intelligence. The need for speed for AI is tremendous.”

Because the company won’t be bringing out Nantero-branded products, Schmergel said that it doesn’t need to decide on one product. “We’re supporting multiple customers who each make their own decisions about which product to pursue, and then we support them in bringing those products to market,” he said. “It’s possible for lots of different NRAM products to be under development at the same time.”

Chris Spivey, BCC Research co-founder and senior editor who co-authored the BCC Research report released last year, said that Nantero’s business model for its proprietary NRAM makes a lot of sense, with the acquisition of the company being the end result. “It could be an Apple. It could be one of the big four semiconductors.”

Although BCC Research saw potential for a great deal of NRAM-based products, Spivey said that he held some skepticism about Nantero’s technology that was assuaged by talking to other experts. “The issue for Nantero really was the entrenched technology not wanting to give up market share,” he said. “It was hard to make a commercial case because there was other cross-point architecture coming along and it was still a little uncertain about what would happen.”

But even more before Nantero’s latest news, Spivey said that there was chatter of companies looking to form a business relationship. “These companies have sort of voted that they want to participate in the future of carbon memory.”

— Gary Hilson is a general contributing editor with a focus on memory and flash technologies for EE Times.

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