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."
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.