In-Stat analyst Steve Cullen believes Nanochip has licensed a material that uses chalcogenide glass from Ovonyx. Knight acknowledges that his company has worked with that kind of recording material but is unwilling to say more on the topic.
Lai, who works for Ovonyx, declines to comment on the material being used by Nanochip but points out that the phase-change semiconductor work being done by Ovonyx has more to do with reducing the size of current circuit technologies. "We will continue to follow Moore's Law."
A potential stumbling block for Nanochip's technology is that the tips on the probes, which have a radius smaller than 25nm, could wear out quickly.
Tip wear is particularly relevant if array-based probes are adopted as storage mechanisms in servers. "Obviously, you have a lot of tip wear that goes into an enterprise server that's operating 24/7, for five, six or seven years," says Knight.
Lai concurs. The tip is a problem, he says, because it touches the surface of the material.
Knight declines to specify how Nanochip has resolved the tip-wear dilemma, but he insists the company has had a breakthrough in its research that has addressed the problem.
Probe-based storage in the real world
In-Stat's Cullen claims the new technology will find a home as a replacement for hard drives in notebook computers. "The thing that strikes me about 100GB is that it's a nice size for something to replace a disk in a notebook PC," he says. "All they've got to do is come close to the price of a disk and then offer some other advantage. It may consume less power than a disk. It could be more rugged."
Nanochip is confident in its ability to produce a product with the same size as existing drives. "We'll make the interface so it'll just plug and play," says Knight. It's a new technology, but you want it to fit right in."
Lai believes that the new memory could herald breakthroughs in mobile devices and biotechnology. "You now need your whole life history stored in your mobile device," he says. "If you want something to store your genome in, it may take a lot of memory, and you'll want to carry it with you."
The big question that remains for Nanochip is whether the company can create working prototypes with the cost advantages that array-based technology is supposed to offer over conventional forms of memory. The fact that IBM appears to have moved on from its Millipede research doesn't alarm Bourne. In fact, she points out, several people from the IBM team have joined Nanochip's board of advisers. Knight said the company has 50 engineers and scientists working around the world on the prototypes, either as part of Nanochip itself or within the companies that his firm is partnering with.
IBM last publicly shared details of its probe-based storage research in a gathering of companies and organizations involved in a joint research project called ProTeM, for "probe-based terabit memory."
According to Evangelos Eleftheriou, an IBM fellow and manager of IBM Labs' storage technologies group, the company built a prototype that achieved a storage capacity of a terabyte per square inch. He says that research will be published in an article appearing in a couple of months in the IBM Journal of Research and Development. But the group doesn't have plans to develop any products. It will leave that to other companies that might choose to license the research, he says.