Unlike flash NAND, where the frequently changing lithography requires construction of ever-pricier manufacturing plants, Nanochip can manufacture its chips on existing low-cost semiconductor equipment, according to Marlene Bourne, head of analyst firm The Bourne Report. "They're using used equipment [and] adapting to their needs," she says. "Same machinery, same equipment, same materials, same basic processing steps. You're just creating three-dimensional objects instead of a flat [integrated circuit]." That will hold true, she says, even as the company increases the density of its chips. That could provide a cost advantage over solid-state drives, which are currently in the range of $15 to $18 per gigabyte.
Like solid-state drives, array-based memory requires no motor, which reduces its power consumption and heat output in comparison with spinning disk hard drives, says Lai. The mechanism used to move the probes is very low power, he says. Because they don't require "a hundred pieces to make the hard drive work," Lai says he believes Nanochip products will be more rugged.
Unlike traditional disk drives in servers, says Knight, his company's technology prevents the queuing problems that surface when multiple users try to access data. "When you have an array of these chips, you have many, many points of access," he says. An internal controller inside the Nanochip sends the tips down to locate specific data, which is returned in multiplex form and output in serial form, "just like the output of a NAND flash drive or disk drive -- but in fact, the data is spread out over a few hundred tips."
Array-based technology isn't something new and unique, says Bourne. Nanochip is simply applying it in a slightly different way. "The tips that form the core of this memory technology are what's being used in atomic force microscopes," she points out.
IBM's first attempt with Millipede
IBM first showed a similar technology in the late 1990s. The Millipede project, which is no longer in active research at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory, used microelectrical mechanical system (MEMS) components. In MEMS, the electronics or "brains" of the chip are usually fabricated using integrated circuits, while the moving parts are microscopic components etched from silicon in a micromachining process. Millipede itself was based on nanoscale research in which individual iron atoms were arranged with atomic precision on a special copper surface. That research won two IBM scientists the 1986 Nobel Prize in physics.
Millipede works by using a microscopic probe to make an indent in a polymer material. Each indent represents a single bit as part of the write operation. The indentations can then be removed from the material surface during an erase operation.
By using thousands of such probes in parallel, array-based memory achieves high data rates, with each probe able to read, write, and erase in its own data field.
Where Millipede puts "dents in plastic," Nanochip has found a better material for the read-write process to occur, according to Knight, though he declines say what that better material is. A year and a half ago, Knight says, the company made a breakthrough on a new media type that could be infinitely rewritable. "The media never wears out," Knight claims. "That's really what got the company rolling fast."