IBM Boosts Development of Flash Memory Successor

A new chip technology could encroach on flash memory and hard-disk drive market share, as a group of companies led by IBM explore phase-change memory.

Big Blue,Macronix andQimonda on Monday announced joint research results that give a major boost to this new type of computer memory, which they are touting as the successor to flash memory chips. Flash memory is widely used in computers and consumer electronics, including digital cameras and portable music players.

Scientists designed, built and demonstrated a prototype phase-change memory device that switched more than 500 times faster than flash while using less than one-half the power to write data into a cell.

The device’s cross-section is a minuscule 3 by 20 nanometers in size, which is far smaller than flash and is equivalent to the industry’s chipmaking capabilities targeted for 2015.

“These results dramatically demonstrate that phase-change memory has a very bright future,” said Dr. T. C. Chen, vice president, science and technology at IBM Research. “Many expect flash memory to encounter significant scaling limitations in the near future. Today, we unveil a new phase-change memory material that has high performance even in an extremely small volume. This should ultimately lead to phase-change memories that will be very attractive for many applications.”

Changing the Tide

Phase-change memory appears to be much faster and can be scaled to dimensions smaller than flash memory — enabling future generations of high-density nonvolatile memory devices as well as more powerful electronics, according to the companies.

Nonvolatile memories do not require electrical power to retain their information. By combining nonvolatility with good performance andreliability, phase-change technology may also enable a path toward a universal memory for mobile applications, the companies said.

On the Drawing Board

Unlike flash, phase-change memory technology can improve as it gets smaller with Moore’s Law advancements. Phase-change memory, as well as some other nonvolatile memory technologies, have been on the drawing board for some time, according to Rob Lineback, a senior market research analyst at IC Insights.

“As you start to shrink some of the parts of the cell of flash memory, it can no longer hold the charge, at least over a 10-year period, and there is always a desire to have something that writes and reads data faster. That’s why these technologies are being pursued,” Lineback told TechNewsWorld.

New Material Makes It Possible

A new alloy material makes phase-change technology possible. The fastest and most economical memory designs — SRAM and DRAM, respectively — use inherently leaky memory cells that must be powered continuously. These “volatile” memories lose their stored information whenever their power supply is interrupted.

The pressure is on to discover a nonvolatile memory because most semiconductor makers agree that flash will eventually become less viable.Intel is also working on nonvolatile memory, among others.

“It seems like every time that people think flash is going to run out of steam, companies find a way to extend flash,” Lineback said. “This is a promising development, but it will be a couple of generations — three to six years — before we see if it’s going to be any major force in the marketplace.”

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