Big Potential in HP's "Small" Research

07/01/2005 12:00 am EST

Focus:

Josh Wolfe

Editor, Forbes/Wolfe Emerging Tech Report

Nanotech expert Josh Wolfe covers many stocks that are unfamiliar to general investors. Nevertheless, much of the leading research in this field is coming from large, well-known tech names. Here he looks at one well-known name in his portfolio, Hewlett-Packard.

"A recent special edition of the European journal Applied Physics, entitled 'Nanoelectronics', was overwhelmingly dominated by papers coming out of research labs at Hewlett Packard (HPQ NYSE) in Palo Alto, California. While HP has been developing nanoscale electronics for a solid decade, this is the first time they’ve laid out a comprehensive, multi-level approach for the scientific community to appraise. The papers described work taking place in HP’s Quantum Science Research (QSR) group, which aims to propel computing beyond the age of silicon into a world of molecular electronics and eventually quantum computing. This kind of super-technology is still decades away, but HP wants to be at the forefront when it becomes a reality.

"Today, the goal is to reinvent the transistor. Molecular computing is inevitable because traditional silicon technology is already approaching its physical limitations. The big idea is to exploit certain properties that organic molecules exhibit at the nanoscale to essentially 'program' them, to store bits of data or carry out logic functions and computations. There are many ways of setting up nanoscale situations to create binary languages. The challenge is to see who can come up with the most practical one. The rewards will be huge: faster, more powerful computers; immense data storage; inexpensive, programmable fabric that can be embedded into everyday materials to make 'smart' products; vast encryption abilities and security methods; and low-power, always-on wireless devices.

"According to recently filed documents, HP is going after molecular computing head on. The papers discuss such topics as methods of nanoimprint lithography for creating the structures of molecular components, ways to connect standard microelectronic parts to the nanostructures while avoiding defects, and even ways of growing self-assembled nanocrystals in order to viably mass-produce quantum structures. At the center of HP’s approach is its patented crossbar architecture, in which strands of nanowires placed perpendicular to one another sandwich a single layer of molecules. When a pulse of electricity is applied, the layer of molecules acts as a switch that can turn on and off. By eliminating the need for silicon transistors, this kind of setup could, eventually, usher in an entirely new era of computing.

"The technology has the potential to yield computers that are thousands of times more powerful and markedly less expensive than today’s. If HP eventually succeeds in this arena it won’t have to sweat out the current commodity PC wars with Dell. But these new nanomolecular PCs are years away. The first will likely hit niche markets that demand low power and very dense memory devices that won’t lose data in the event of a power outage. Medical and military institutions would certainly be likely customers. 'We believe that the first applications could be simple memories in the five- to seven-year time frame,' says HP’s Dave Berman on behalf of QSR.

"Another key to HP’s nano future is Yong Chen, a senior scientist also at QSR, who was awarded a patent for his nanoimprint lithography technique. The use of nanoimprint lithography—essentially a kind of 'stamping’ process'—is an easier and cheaper method of manufacturing than the intricate etching process required to build silicon chips. Moreover, at this tiny scale, manufacturing defects are bound to occur, and HP claims that the crossbar set-up is far better suited to cope with such defects than silicon could be. While I emphasize that these are all long-term projects, HP is forging it’s way down the right track. Its stock remains in our core portfolio and I am more bullish than ever on its prospects."

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