'Phase' Memory Beats Flash

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Flash memory and hard-disk drives could face a challenge from a new chip technology, dubbed "phase-change" memory, being developed by a group of companies led by IBM.

The companies today announced results of their latest research into the technology, which they say does a better job of storing songs, pictures and other data on iPods and digital cameras than current flash memory, and could someday replace disk drives.

The companies have built a prototype device that runs 500 times faster than today's flash memory while using half as much power to write data to a memory cell, they said.

Smaller, Faster

The circuits on the device are much smaller than those on today's flash chips, measuring just 3 by 20 nanometers (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter). The developers expect that, unlike flash, phase-change memory will be suitable for production on the advanced manufacturing techniques targeted for use in 2015.

The progress came partly from the development of a new material to build the memory chips, a germanium alloy to which the researchers added other elements to enhance its properties. The companies have applied for a patent for the material, they said.

Besides IBM, the developers include Qimonda, the DRAM spin-off from Infineon Technologies; and Taiwan's Macronix. They plan to discuss their findings at the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineer's 2006 International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco later this week.

Exciting Breakthrough

It's the kind of breakthrough that people look forward to in the technology industry, although end users will have to be patient before it finds its way into products. It could take several more years for the technology to be developed sufficiently for use in finished products.

Still, phase-change memory appears promising. The chips would be a new type of non-volatile memory, which is memory that can hold its electrical charge--and its data--after devices are turned off. Flash is also non-volatile, but phase-change memory can hold its electrical charge better than flash and use it more efficiently, its backers say.

Flash also faces a roadblock in the future. As engineers make chip circuits even smaller, the circuits leak more power and ultimately lose their capability to store data after being turned off. The size limit appears to be around 45 nm, although it will still be years before the flash industry starts using such tiny production technologies.

Phase-change memory can be scaled down to 22 nm, or far smaller than flash memory, the researchers developing it say. It also appears able to be more durable than flash, whose memory cells start to break down after 100,000 rewrites.

Challenges Remain

While its prospects appear bright, the technology faces several hurdles. New chip designs must be relatively easy to manufacture, and they need to be cost-effective enough to attract device makers.

Rambus faced this issue when its chips failed to overtake DRAM as the main memory type for PCs several years ago, despite having the backing of Intel. The problem, some companies said, is that the RDRAM chips were too costly to produce--although Rambus vehemently disagrees with this.

IBM has also posted animation clips of the phase-change devices.

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