Santa Clara, Calif. -- Who would have thought the Japanese underworld would get involved in the fight against climate change?

Micron Technology earlier this year bought a company called Numonyx, which specializes in a fast and super energy-efficient type of computer memory called phase change memory (PCM) that has been delayed for years. Early PCM adopters have included computing companies, who use it in internal systems to speed up their prototype development process, said Ed Doller, who runs the advanced memory group at Micron, during a meeting at the Flash Memory Summit taking place in Santa Clara this week.

Another major early application, he added, was in gaming devices, specifically, "Pachinko machines," he said. A compulsive staple in the entertainment world of Japan, Pachinko machines have had long connections to shady characters.

Over the next 18 months, expect to see a few more PCM applications. Some companies are looking at inserting the technology into phones or DVD players for rapid boot-up. (Side note: Micron formed a solar joint venture earlier this year, so expect to see the name pop up more frequently in green circles.)

Memory and data storage will likely be one of the major topics in green IT over the next few years. That is, after better air conditioning systems. Storage can account for a large percentage of the power consumed by data centers. Startups like Schooner Information Technology and Nimbus Data Systems have started to market all-in-one storage devices based around flash drives and their own software. Meanwhile, Lyric Semiconductor, Fusion I-O and Sandforce have come up with components that boost the performance of the actual flash drives and chips.

In notebooks, meanwhile, a major notebook manufacturer will introduce a notebook that will not accommodate a regular hard drive, according to Micron Technology vice president Dean Klein. It will only come with a solid-state flash drive. Right now, most of the major manufacturers sell notebooks in which consumers can order a flash drive instead of a hard drive, but an all-flash notebook would be novel.

Who will do it? Apple is a candidate. The company already offers solid-state drives on its notebooks: it could just kill off the version of the MacBook Air with a regular drive and claim to have accomplished something significant. The obligatory obsequiousness would be deafening. Then again, Lenovo caters to the corporate types that would get the most use out of a notebook with an extended battery life.

Conventional flash memory will likely be the technology that starts to erode the dominance of drives. Alternatives may not be needed in large numbers or quantities until the second half of the decade. And the leading one is PCM, which has a long and interesting history. (And if history is any guide, a strong chance exists that it will never replace flash altogether.) PCM stores data differently than flash or even hard drives. It is made from a material similar to the stuff DVDs from which are made. To write data to it, heat is applied to a memory cell. When the cell cools, the bit re-solidifies into one of two crystalline structures, depending on how fast the cooling takes place. The two different crystalline structures exhibit different levels of resistance to electrical current. Those differing levels of resistance are ultimately read as '1s' or '0s' by a computer.

Stan Ovshinsky is the original inventor of phase change. Ovshinksy is the celebrated yet controversial inventor who played a major role in amorphous silicon solar panels and nickel metal hydride batteries (he is also the founder of Energy Conversion Devices).

PCM has been heralded as the next big thing since the early 1970s. Gordon Moore himself predicted in Electronics Magazine that computer users might see it in that decade.

The memory, though, actually only started coming out recently. (Don't feel bad for Moore, though. The same issue of the magazine included an article titled, "The Big Gamble in Home Video Recorders.")

Another PCM side note: Brian Harrison, the new CEO of Solyndra, used to run Numonyx.

Tags: energy efficiency, flash, green computing, green it, micron, phase change memory