Data is becoming a massive energy problem.

In 2009, the world is cranking out 1.5 gigabytes of data per second, according to Ed Doller, chief technical officer at Numonyx, an Intel-STMicroelectronics spin-out that makes a technology called phase change memory.

By 2020, we will generate 500 gigabytes per microsecond, or every millionth second.

"The growth of data is off the charts," he said, during a presentation at the Flash Memory Summit, taking place this week in Santa Clara, Calif.

More data, of course, means more servers, storage systems, air conditioners, power supplies and power plants to serve it. Data centers account for roughly 2.5 percent of the power in Northern California and the power consumed by data centers grew approximately 15 percent in the past year, according to statistics from Pacific Gas & Electric.

Improving efficiency, of course, would help all of these factors and reduce the amount of real estate required for computers too. Several companies – Sandforce (flash memory chips for corporate storage), IBM, Cisco, Power Assure (server management), SynapSense – tout technologies for this market.

No surprise, Doller's answer to get a grip on the problem involves phase change memory, which is both an old and new technology. Phase change memory is made of the same stuff as CD disks and not classic transistors like flash memory. To write data to it, heat is applied to a memory cell. When it 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). Engineers love him; investors kick themselves.

Unlike a standard hard drive, there are no whirring motors and platters and phase change is reportedly faster than flash memory chips, which cuts down energy consumption by getting more done in less time. Let's say it took a day for a phase change chip to look up an item of data, said Doller. The same search would take a solid state drive 17 days. It would take a hard drive nine years.

And if you optimized the software behind the phase change memory, the search time would drop from a day to 30 minutes. On Wall Street, millisecond delays in trading can lead directly to millions in losses.

"We are going to need this kind of performance just to index the information out there," he said.

Numonyx just started shipping chips last year.

Nonetheless, it's an old idea. The technology has been stuck in the proverbial "a few years away" phase for a long time. Whether Numonyx can finally bring it to the mainstream is a looming unknown.

"It could be cheaper than flash within a couple of years," analyst Richard Doherty in said in 2001, predicting the technology might hit the market in 2003.

"We are making good progress," Stefan Lai, one of Intel's flash memory scientists, said in 2002.

Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel and the man for whom Moore's Law was named, wrote an article in the September 28, 1970 issue of Electronics predicting that Ovonics Unified Memory, another name for the same type of memory, could hit the market by the end of that decade. (The same issue of Electronics also included this article: "The Big Gamble in Home Video Recorders.")

On the same day, Time Magazine reviewed the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. "A disaster," it said.

Anwar Sadat took over as temporary president of Egypt.

The delays have largely stemmed from two sources. First, it's not an easy technology to master. In phase change memory chips, a microscopic bit on a substrate gets heated up to between 150 degrees and 600 degrees Celsius.

Second, the memory industry has shown an uncanny ability to slash prices and improve their technology, often at the expense of profits. For a number of years in the early part of the decade, the pace of flash memory development moved faster than Moore's Law. To undercut established manufacturers that often enjoy support from home governments certainly won't be easy.


Learn how to differentiate your company through greener product lines at Greening the Supply Chain on September 17 in Boston.

Tags: california, chips, cisco, data centers, data storage, energy conversion devices, flash memory chips, flash memory summit, green it, hard drive, ibm, intel, intel-stmicroelectronics, moore's law, numonyx