Nanotechnology Research at HP Labs - dummies

By Earl Boysen, Nancy C. Muir, Desiree Dudley, Christine Peterson

Do some corporations perform internal nanotechnology research? You bet they do. One example is HP Labs, part of Hewlett Packard, the printer and computer giant. Their lab was set up in 1966 when the founders Hewlett and Packard decided that having their own lab would help their researchers focus on technology that could shape the future of the company.

Building on past successes with technology such as scientific calculators, cordless mice, and thermal inkjet printing, the lab today works in a variety of areas, including nanotechnology. Their main nano focus is on nanoelectronics, the use of nanotechnology to build smaller integrated circuits and streamline information processing.

HP Labs represents its focus this way: “We believe we have a practical, comprehensive strategy for moving computing beyond conventional silicon electronics to the world of molecular-scale electronics. We are investigating the underlying science of nanostructures that operate at the atomic scale, looking for advantageous ways of exploiting their unique properties.”

One of their important advances in nano was the creation of the first molecular logic gate. Logic gates are parts of integrated circuits. A molecular logic gate is very small and can be used to chemically assemble an electronic nanocomputer — otherwise known as a microprocessor.

Nanoimprint lithography, which involves printing patterns on integrated circuits, was first used by HP Labs. This kind of lithography can be used to build very small electronic devices, such as a transistor with feature sizes as small as 12.5 nanometers. This size device could not be built using the more traditional optical lithography because light cannot be used to print features below a certain size.

A recent development from HP Labs that could prove significant in the area of memory density is the nanoscale memristor, which is an element of an electronic circuit. Although people had guessed at the existence of memristors, they were unable to prove their existence using larger scale devices.

In 2008 HP Labs was able to demonstrate the memristor effect by using nanoscale devices because the electrical effect is stronger at that size. In large devices, the electrical effect from memristors had simply been viewed as noise.

The memristor is in the same class of circuit components as those basic electronics components — the resistor, capacitor, and inductor. What is special about the memristor is that its resistance depends on the voltage that was last applied to it, even after the voltage is removed. Therefore, a memristor can be used as a single-component memory cell in an integrated circuit, allowing higher memory density than conventional memory circuits.

HP has announced that it has made an agreement with a semiconductor company to use memristors on chips that will be sold as a commercial product. This advance could increase the memory capacity of computer chips by as much as a factor of 10.

The new materials created in this joint venture will be called ReRAM (resistive random access memory) and these materials have the potential of replacing flash memory currently used in mobile phones, MP3 players, and even computer hard drives.

Memristors take less energy and are faster than current memory storage technologies. They can even retain memory after you turn off the power to a device.