Memory Chip Breakthrough For Electronic Devices

Dec. 11, 2006
IBM, Macronix and Quimonda develop a 'phase-change' that's faster than flash memory.

A team of scientists announced a breakthrough in computer memory technology on Dec. 11 that heralded more sophisticated and reliable MP3 players, digital cameras and other devices. Scientists from IBM, Macronix and Qimonda said they developed a material that made "phase-change" memory 500 to 1,000 times faster than the commonly used "flash" memory, while using half as much power.

"You can do a lot of things with this phase-change memory that you can't do with flash," IBM senior manager of nanoscale science Spike Narayan said. "You can replace disks, do instant-on computers, or carry your own fancy computer application in your hand. It would complement smaller technology if manufacturers wanted to conjure things up."

Technical details of the research are to be presented to engineers gathered at the 2006 International Electronic Devices Meeting in San Francisco.

Researchers expected the discovery to anoint phase-change memory the successor to flash memory as the electronics industry continues a relentless quest to make devices smaller and more powerful.

The new material was a complex semiconductor alloy that resulted from collaborative research at IBM's Almaden Research Center in the Silicon Valley city of San Jose, Calif. Qimonda memory technology firm is based in Germany and Macronix is a "non-volatile" memory company located in Taiwan.

Most computer memory devices are based on the presence or absence of electrical charge contained in a tiny region of a cell. The fastest and most economical memory designs -- SRAM and DRAM, respectively -- use inherently leaky memory cells, so they must be powered continuously and, in case of DRAM, refreshed frequently as well. These "volatile" memories lose their stored information whenever their power supplies are interrupted. At the heart of phase-change memory is a tiny chunk of alloy that can be changed rapidly between an ordered, crystalline phase and a disordered, amorphous phase. Because no electrical power is required to maintain either phase of the material, phase-change memory is "non-volatile."

While the semiconductor alloy from Almaden is new, phase-change technology has been around for decades and has been used in DVDs and CDs, according to researchers. Samsung and Intel have both been working with phase-change memory devices, according to Narayan. "We have demonstrated the potential of the phase-change memory technology on very small dimensions laying out a scalability path," said Qimonda vice president Wilhelm Beinvogl.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2006

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