TORONTO — Nantero is coming out of stealth mode and announcing a round of financing because it believes its proprietary NRAM is ready to take its place as a storage class memory and replacement for flash and DRAM.
The company has raised $31.5 million from both new investors and existing investors, which it will use to accelerate development of its NRAM (non-volatile random access memory, sometimes known as Nano-RAM) for use in both enterprise and consumer applications.
NRAM is based on carbon nanotubes, cylinders made out of carbon atoms, explained said Nantero CEO Greg Schmergel in a telephone interview with EE Times. Stronger than steel, these nanotubes have a diameter of one to two nanometers, and are better conductors of electricity than other known materials used in chips.
Although Nantero was founded in 2001, it is still very much in a startup phase. EE Times named Nantero one of 10 top startups to watch in 2013. Schmergel said progress working with systems and device companies prompted Nantero to come out of stealth mode. He said NRAM is ready for commercialization and high-volume production, and that the company is sampling 4Mb high-yield memory chips, with the NRAM process installed in seven production CMOS fabs.
NRAM technology offers a number of advantages, said Schmergel, including read and write that is the same as DRAM but one-hundred times faster than NAND flash used in mobile devices and SSDs, as well as better endurance. “The endurance is unlimited because carbon nanotubes never wear out.”
Tests have been done to demonstrate that NRAM remains stable in extreme temperatures, and was even tested by Lockheed Martin and NASA on the space shuttle Atlantis by being bombarded with radiation.
Back on Earth, NRAM’s commercial appeal is that is also lower power consumption as compared to DRAM and flash, and the small size of carbon nanotubes means more data in a smaller footprint. This makes it appealing for laptops and mobile devices, said Schmergel, as well as suitable for wearables or Internet of Things devices. “There are applications we can't predict.”
He said NRAM offers appealing cost benefits as well. Because of the small size of the carbon nanotubes, it can be easily shrunk, which means NRAM doesn't face the same manufacturing challenges as other forms of memory, Schmergel said, and no additional equipment is needed for existing CMOS fabs, although it took years of work to get it completely compatible on production tools. “You can use any lithography you want. It makes it very cost effective.”
Nantero's proprietary NRAM is based on carbon nanotubes
Nantero won't make the NRAM itself, Schmergel said. Instead it will license the technology to device makers and manufacturers. He said the first chips will be DRAM-compatible modules that fit into memory slots, and device makers will be able to place carbon-nanotube storage on top of NAND flash circuitry.
Having been working on its NRAM technology for more than a decade, it’s time for Nantero to show what they’ve got, said Alan Niebel, CEO of WebFeet Research. How quickly it can get its technology into silicon is the acid test. Access times, power consumption, endurance, scalability, and how it easy is to manufacture will all determine NRAM’s viability and wide-scale adoption. He doesn’t expect embedded NRAM to hit the market until 2016, and standalone NRAM the following year.
Niebel said carbon nanotubes are attractive because of their endurance, and if Nantero is able to reduce costs as it claims, NRAM becomes very interesting technology, especially if it as universal as the company portends. But while it may be cheaper to manufacture than DRAM, it’s still more expensive than NAND, he said. It will also require a lot of implementation, testing and optimization work on the fabrication floor.
Nantero may see an opportunity for NRAM to unseat DRAM in some applications, but DRAM is not likely to be heavily supplanted any time soon. Both Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix plan to invest more in DRAM to meet steady demand for use in mobile devices such as phones, The Korea Times reported.
There have always been emerging memories vying for take place of DRAM or NAND flash, if only for certain applications, including resistive RAM (RRAM) and magnetoresistive (MRAM), while phase-change memory (PCM) still needs further refinement.
—Gary Hilson covers memory and flash technologies for EE Times and is the editor of Memory Designline.
Join over 2,000 technical professionals and embedded systems hardware, software, and firmware developers at ESC Silicon Valley July 20-22, 2015 and learn about the latest techniques and tips for reducing time, cost, and complexity in the embedded development process.
Passes for the ESC Silicon Valley 2015 Technical Conference are available at the conference’s official site with discounted advance pricing until July 17, 2015. The Embedded Systems Conference and EE Times are owned by UBM Canon.