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HP announced on Wednesday that researchers from HP Labs, the company’s central research facility, have proven the existence of what had previously been only theorized as the fourth fundamental circuit element in electrical engineering. The discovery of the element called “memristor” can enable technologies that may eventually replace dynamic random access memory (DRAM), hard drives or flash.

Memristor: The Fourth Fundamental Electronic Circuit Element

In a paper published in Nature magazine, four researchers at HP Labs’ Information and Quantum Systems Lab, led by R. Stanley Williams, presented the math1ematical model and a physical example of a “memristor” – a blend of “memory resistor” – which has the unique property of retaining a history of the information it has acquired. The team at HP is the first to prove the existence of the memristor, even though the discovery of the element was predicted decades back.

The memristor first appeared in a 1971 paper published by professor Leon Chua, a computer scientist from the University of California Berkeley. Mr. Chua described and named the memristor, arguing that it should be included along with the resistor, capacitor and inductor as the fourth fundamental circuit element. The memristor has properties that cannot be duplicated by any combination of the other three elements.

Although researchers had observed instances of memristance for more than 50 years, the proof of its existence remained elusive – in part because memristance is much more noticeable in nanoscale devices. The crucial issue for memristance is that the device’ atoms need to change location when voltage is applied, and that happens much more easily at the nanoscale.

Stanley Williams and co-authors Dmitri B. Strukov, Gregory S. Snider and Duncan R. Stewart were able to formulate a physics-based model of a memristor and build nanoscale devices in their lab that demonstrate all of the necessary operating characteristics to prove that the memristor was real.

“To find something new and yet so fundamental in the mature field of electrical engineering is a big surprise, and one that has significant implications for the future of computer science. By providing a math1ematical model for the physics of a memristor, HP Labs has made it possible for engineers to develop integrated circuit designs that could dramatically improve the performance and energy efficiency of PCs and data centers,” said Stanley Williams of HP.

Memristor Could Replace DRAM, Other Storage Technologies

One application for the memristor research could be the development of a new kind of computer memory that would supplement and eventually replace today’s commonly used DRAM, HP said.

Computers using conventional DRAM lack the ability to retain information once they lose power, but when power is restored to a DRAM-based computer, a slow, energy-consuming “boot-up” process is necessary to retrieve data from hard drive required to run the system. In contrast, a memristor-based computer would retain its information after losing power and would not require the boot-up process, resulting in the consumption of less power and wasted time.

Mr. Chua believes the memristor could have applications for computing, cell phones, video games, anything that requires a lot of memory without a lot of battery-power drain.

This functionality could play a significant role as “cloud computing” becomes more prevalent. Cloud computing requires an IT infrastructure of hundreds of thousands of servers and storage systems. The memory and storage systems used by today’s cloud infrastructure require significant power to store, retrieve and protect the information of millions of web users worldwide.

Memristor Could Enable Computers that Think Like Humans

Memristor technology could one day lead to computer systems that can remember and associate patterns in a way a human brain recognizes patterns.

This could substantially improve today’s facial recognition technology, enable security and privacy features that recognize a complex set of biometric features of an authorized person to access personal information, or enable an appliance to learn from experience.

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