Thinking big and working small.
Imagine a day when a 20GB MP3 player seems ridiculously limited, lighting speed , and the wait time after starting up a computer is reduced to less than a second. Sound like futuristic wishful thinking? Not to Boston-based Nantero, developer of a new kind of memory chip that could make technology faster and stronger. President and CEO Greg Schmergel chats about Harvard scientists, nanotubes, and juicing up a cell phone.
How did the company get started?
Nantero was started in early 2001 when I met two very impressive scientists, each with a Ph.D. from Harvard, Dr. Thomas Rueckes and Dr. Brent Segal. Dr. Rueckes came up with a way to make nanoelectromechanical memory, called NRAM–in other words, memory with actual moving parts, with dimensions measured in nanometers. The last time anyone designed a computer component with moving parts was over 50 years ago, so you can imagine this was quite a counterintuitive and radical idea. But the three of us believed strongly in its potential and we joined together to found the company. People have been trying to develop universal memory for decades now, and it has proven to be very difficult, but we have a completely new approach.
What are some of the challenges of developing this memory using nanotubes?
The biggest challenge was figuring out how to place the nanotubes in the correct positions. Each nanotube is approximately 50-to-100,000 times smaller than a piece of your hair. This means they're about 1-to-2 nanometers in diameter, and don't forget, a nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Now imagine trying to get those tubes into the exact place you need them to be. Through a lot of hard work, and some additional creative breakthroughs Dr. Rueckes, we succeeded in solving that problem.
Why is there a need for the kind of universal memory you're developing?
You can look around your office or your home and see many products that would benefit from a very dense, very fast universal memory. NRAM has a wide variety of uses, and can be used not only in computers and laptops, but also in cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, servers, routers, and in fact, just about every electronic device you can imagine.
What makes NRAM a better option for memory than DRAM?
The biggest difference is that NRAM is nonvolatile. That means that when you turn the power off, you don't lose the data. And that means that you never have to wait for your computer to boot up again; it turns on instantly. You can save many minutes of unproductive wait time every day. On top of this, NRAM is much faster, and uses less power. Plus, you can fit more NRAM in the same space, which comes in handy when you're making a small portable device, like a PDA or an MP3 player or a cell phone. Imagine having a whole gigabyte of memory in your cell phone!
What do you like most about the company?
It's hard to imagine a more exciting area than nanoelectronics. Every day at our lab our engineers are coming up with new ideas and new ways to build products on a molecular level that have never been done before. And the whole field of nanotechnology is one that will, over the next few decades, affect just about every area of human life, from electronics to medical care and beyond, so it's great to be right there on the leading edge.
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