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Memristor – An Electrical Device with Memory

by Kathy Chambers on Fri, February 10, 2017

X-ray imaging shows how memristors work at  an atomic scale
X-ray imaging shows how memristors work at
an atomic scale.  Image credit:  SLAC National
Accelerator Laboratory

A tiny device called a memristor holds great promise for a new era of electronics.  Unlike a conventional resistor, its resistance can be reset, and it remembers its resistance.  It functions in a way that is similar to synapses in the human brain, where neurons pass and receive information.  A memristor is a two-terminal device whose resistance depends on the voltages applied to it in the past.  When the voltage is turned off, the resistance remains or remembers where it was previously.  This little device actually learns.  A commercially viable memristor could enable us to move away from flash memory and silicon-based computing to smart energy-efficient computers that operate similarly to the human brain, with the capability to comprehend speech and images, and with highly advanced memory retention.

The memristor was first predicted theoretically by University of California, Berkeley professor Leon Chua in 1971 as the fourth basic electrical device element alongside the resistor, capacitor, and inductor.  He named his device a memristor—a contraction of the words “memory” and “resistor.”  Chua’s concept, as originally described, involved magnetic flux in the memristor’s operation.  But in 2008, when Richard Stanley Williams and researchers at Hewlett-Packard engineered a non-magnetic device based on other long-known material properties, their description of it in terms of Chua’s memristor concept rocked the electronics research community.

During the past decade, memristor designs, materials, and behavior have been explored by the Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) team at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories and in collaboration with the Department of Energy (DOE) research community.  In experiments at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the HPE team, with Stanford University researchers, recently utilized powerful Advanced Light Source (ALS) microscopy techniques to confirm critical aspects of how the memristor works at an atomic scale.  These ALS techniques allow researchers to better understand the basic physics of memristor device operation.  This information is a crucial step forward in designing solid-state devices in future computers’ memories.  Their research paper, “Direct observation of localized radial oxygen migration in functioning tantalum oxide memristors,” was published in Advanced Materials in February 2016.  Free public access to this paper is available in DOE PAGES, the Department’s public access gateway for journal articles resulting from DOE-funded research.

Additional information about DOE-funded memristor research and technical details are provided in Dr. William Watson’s latest white paper, “In the OSTI Collections: Memristors.”  DOE’s February 2017 Science Showcase also features Memristor research results available in DOE databases and related links of interest.

Other Related Topics: device, electrical, memory, Memristor
Page last updated on 2017-03-10 10:22

About the Author

Kathy Chambers's picture
Kathy Chambers
Technical Writer, Information International Associates, Inc.