The team at HP Labs responsible for building the world’s first memristor in 2008 have discovered their creation has more capabilities than was previously thought. In addition to retaining a history of the information it has acquired making it useful for memory storage devices, the team has found it can perform logic, that could change the way computer systems are designed and enable faster more efficient computers.

The memristor (short for memory resistor) represents the fourth basic circuit element in electrical engineering, joining resistors, capacitors, and inductors. The discovery that it can perform logic opens up the possibility of computation one day being performed in chips where data is stored, rather than on a specialized central processing unit (CPU).

Memristors offer many advantages. They require less energy to operate, are faster, and can store at least twice as much data in the same area as present solid-state storage technologies such as Flash memory. They are also virtually immune from radiation, which can disrupt transistor-based technologies – making them an attractive way to enable ever smaller but ever more powerful devices. And because they do not “forget,” memristors can enable computers that never need to be booted up and can be turned on and off like a light switch.

HP Labs has already created development-ready architectures for memory chips using memristors and believes it is possible that devices incorporating the element could come to market within the next few years.

HP researchers also have designed a new architecture within which multiple layers of memristor memory can be stacked on top of each other in a single chip. In five years, such chips could be used to create handheld devices that offer ten times greater embedded memory than exists today or to power supercomputers that allow work like movie rendering and genomic research to be done dramatically faster than Moore’s Law suggests is possible.

The team also says the discovery means that eventually memristor-based products might replace the silicon in the smart display screens found in e-readers and could one day even become the successors to silicon on a larger scale.

“Since our brains are made of memristors, the flood gate is now open for commercialization of computers that would compute like human brains, which is totally different from the von Neumann architecture underpinning all digital computers,” says Leon Chua, professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department, University of California at Berkeley, who initially theorized about and named the memristor in an academic paper published 39 years ago.