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Nanotechnology-Based Data Storage On Rise

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New York (UPI) Sep 07, 2004
Nanotechnology could yield billions of dollars of new data storage devices, based on exotic technologies, in just the next few years, with vastly larger memory and faster response times, analysts told United Press International.

Advances customers could see from such devices include cell phones with enough memory to download movies, suggested Lawrence Gasman, principal analyst for NanoMarkets, an industry research firm in Sterling, Va.

The global market for such nano-based storage - engineered at the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter, which is shorter than a wavelength of visible light - is expected to increase dramatically.

Experts predict a growth from $97 million in 2004 to $17.9 billion by 2008 and $65.7 billion by 2011, large enough to suggest future disruptions in existing markets and potentially the rise of new industry giants.

The surprise is how close some of these are to reality, Gasman told UPI. The nanotech impact is often shrugged off as happening in our children's era. With storage, it's beginning to take off now, and will be here in two or three years' time.

What helps with the rapid adoption is how the titans of industry are getting involved -- the Intels and the IBMs, Sean Murdock, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, told UPI.

The most common nanostorage devices today are based on FRAM, or ferroelectric random access memory, which represents a $95 million worldwide market in 2004. In FRAM devices, data are stored using electric fields inside a capacitor.

Ramtron in Colorado Springs (Colo.) has licensed this technology to a number of companies, Gasman explained. It has the advantage of being fast, cheap, really quite low power, but it's fairly low capacity and has limited read-writes.

Industry buzz is rising around MRAM, or magnetic RAM, where data are stored not electrically but magnetically.

The advantage of MRAM is it preserves data after systems are switched off, which means computers, digital cameras, PDAs and other devices can be built with non-volatile memory, the kind immediately ready for use after switching on.

The concept represents only about a $2 million market in 2004, but NanoMarkets predicts MRAM will rise quickly - reaching $3.8 billion by 2008 and $12.9 billion by 2011 - the largest chunk of the nanostorage market. In contrast, company analysts think FRAM will grow only to about $4.5 billion in 2011.

MRAM has attracted some attention from Honeywell, in that it's radiation-hard, (so it) can be used in missiles and submarines, where there's the possibility radiation can create errors in reading the chip - a problem across the military world, Gasman said.

The nearest to commercializing MRAM outside the military is Motorola, who is on the cusp with products they can ship in production quantities in months vs. years. Outside Motorola, there's Cyprus Semiconductor, who's pretty near.

Along with FRAM and MRAM are even more exotic technologies that, though not yet commercially available, are predicted by NanoMarkets to generate more than $1 billion in revenues - each - by 2008.

A lot of the upcoming technologies have the advantage of being high-density storage technologies that also allow instant-on computing, Murdock said. They combine what's great about hard drives with what's great about memory - speed with density, he added.

There's holographic media, which now seems to be appearing from a number of different companies, Gasman said. "It's aimed as a DVD replacement and it could have as its upper limits 50 times the capacity of a DVD.

Because, at this point, it appears that data can be written only into holographic storage once, he said, it is really attractive most for long-term archival storage, for instance of corporate data, which is becoming a big issue.

NanoMarkets predicts a $3.2 billion market for holographic storage by 2008, rising to $6.9 billion in 2011.

RAM based on carbon nanotubes developed by Nantero in Woburn, Mass., could provide non-volatile, high-speed, high-density memory that is both radiation-resistant and low-power.

Nantero revealed a functioning prototype, 10-gigabyte array in 2004. NanoMarkets predicts it will yield a $1.9 billion market in 2008, climbing to $8.8 billion by 2011.

We don't really believe in the concept of a kind of universal memory, Gasman said.

The requirements for different applications within different systems vary so much that even if one could do it all, it's the old story of the jack of all trades, where a memory chip may do all of those things, but not as well as a combination of solutions.

But nanotube RAM comes as close to universal memory as you can see today.

Memory devices based on plastics could prove cheap to manufacture.

Polymer memory could be a very big deal - much more low cost, Gasman explained. The problem is getting the right polymer to make electronics work that can handle fatigue along the way.

There's nothing more annoying than having something break down in six weeks.

The company predicts a $1.3 billion market in 2008 and $7.8 billion in 2011.

Yet another concept, called ovonic memory, records data electrically onto thin films.

It also promises to be non-volatile, high-density and cheap, with reasonably fast read-write speeds, Gasman said. He noted that Energy Conversion Devices in Rochester Hills, Mich., had worked in this field for decades.

What's different now is they have serious backers. One is Intel. Another is STMicroelectronics. BAE Systems is also working with them on defense applications. When you have those sort of backers, you have a good chance of success.

Nanomarkets predicts a $1.1 billion market in 2008 and $4.8 billion in 2011.

Zettacore in Denver is developing molecular memory, which reads and writes data by adding and removing electrons off nanometer-sized molecules.

Molecule charge-based memory is really intended as a replacement for DRAM, Gasman said.

Dynamic RAM currently is used to contain the main system memory of computers, because it is cheaper and takes up less space than faster and less-complicated static RAM, or SRAM.

Zettacore and other molecular memory companies could reach $1.1 billion in revenues by 2008 and rise to $7.1 billion by 2011, experts predicted.

Devices that are hybrids between nanotechnology and MEMS, or microelectromechanical systems, include IBM's Millipede project, a form of non-volatile memory that could be an excellent replacement for the mini-disks in an iPod or something, Gasman said.

Commercialization of Millipede has been pushed back, but IBM said it should come out in 2006 or 2007. NanoMarkets expects MEMS-based systems to earn $6.4 billion by 2011.

Other, radical technologies in development that could earn up to $6.1 billion by 2011 include 3-D architectures for memory, where data are stored not just horizontally in flat chips, but also are crammed vertically.

The big question is how many technologies can this market support, Gasman said. He said a universal memory device was unlikely and not every technology might work out.

Nobody at this point has the resources to spread over all the technologies, and somebody has to bet on the wrong one. Some sizable companies might get left behind.

By 2011, NanoMarkets expects nano-storage will make up close to 40 percent of the combined disk-drive and memory-chip markets, projected to total $166 billion.

It's going to be disruptive in that a certain part of the disk drive business is going to essentially disappear, the very low-end replaced by RAM-type products, Gasman said.

Pioneering technologies could rise rapidly to the forefront.

If you're Nokia, for instance, and want to develop a new handheld product, and are comfortable with a specific nanotech, you're going to buy that and not other stuff, and buy in fairly large quantities, he said. So we expect a fairly rapid ramp-up four years from now, to make for really attractive revenues.

I suspect you will see individual venture capitalist investors take multiple strategies for nano-storage, Murdock said. Venture capitalists might focus on one particular nano-storage strategy, but it's likely they'll have a position in the alternatives as well.

So many major companies have taken an interest in the field (that it) bodes well for the development of this technology and shows it has real promise, Leo O'Connor, global director of research at analyst firm Frost & Sullivan's Technical Insights, told UPI.

I would caution investors to be very careful. Wait until prototypes have been demonstrated by reputable players and companies show proof of their ability to mass produce components, in addition to solid plans to invest in production plants.

All rights reserved. Copyright 2004 by United Press International. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by United Press International. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of by United Press International. Related Links
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Big Minds Gather To Discuss Ultra-Small Technology
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Sep 10, 2004
Experts from NASA, academia and industry will meet this week to learn the latest developments in nanotechnology and provide input to guide the fledgling industry. The National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) Grand Challenge workshop, hosted by NASA Ames Research Center, located in California's Silicon Valley, will be held Aug. 24-26, 2004 at Rickey's Hyatt Hotel in Palo Alto, Calif.


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