Imagine a camera that holds a whole year's worth of video and pictures. That's just one of the promises of this new chip, a holy grail of electronics. For more than 250 years, there was the capacitor, the resistor, and the inductor. But no one was able to build the fourth mystery element, the memristor. This year, at HP Labs in Palo Alto, a team of researchers led by Dr. Stan Williams succeeded.
What is it good for? For starters, lots and lots of information storage.
"For example," offers Stan William, "the flash memory type of system, where you could effectively take days worth of video on a form factor that's the size of today's thumb drives. That would be an obvious application."
Williams is a Senior Research Fellow at the lab. Because memristors are so tiny, he says, they could enable installation of microscopic sensors inside every cellphone, turning it into a chemical detector. Williams envisions just such a vast network monitoring the quality of food, air and water across the whole planet.
"...by having people act as local nodes on a network as well, where their PDA or their cellphone has sensors in it. In that way, as they're walking around, they are essentially sampling the environment themselves."
And about your computer... Today, your computer takes a while to start up, because all of the information you're using has to go from permanent storage on a hard drive, into working memory. And, if you don't save it back from here to the hard drive, you lose everything. If you could combine these two into something that never loses its memory, that never requires you to save or worry about turning your computer off, you would have a memristor.
It was elusive for all these years, because it required the arrival of nanotechnology, a recent development. The team wasn't even looking for it. They stumbled across it during another experiment. But they were smart enough to recognize what it was they were seeing. That's huge.