Gone in a Flash: New Memory Devices Make a Splash

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted January 2, 2007

In the fast growing world of electronic gadgets, the ruling ethos is really quite simple-if you make it smaller and faster, the world will beat a path to your door. This is especially true of the data storage end of the business, as new technologies begin to compete for a slice of the entrenched flash memory market.

But replacing a digital institution like flash could prove to be quite difficult. Flash, after all, is as commonplace as the devices themselves. Its format of nonvolatile memory is used in magnetic disc dives, mobile phones, digital cameras, iPods and numerous other devices.

To top it all off, flash is also relatively cheap. For less than $100, today’s digital camera users can store hundreds of images on a chip the size of a postage stamp.

As good as flash is, though, its technology contains something of a product killer. The problem has to do with scalability. Simply put, flash has nearly run up against its size limitations. That means, in terms of future designs, that flash no longer fits within the general ethos of the industry, which is to get smaller by all means.

One emerging technology that could someday replace flash is called phase-change memory (PRAM), developed by Stanford Ovshinsky in the 1960’s. His company, Energy Conversion Devices(ENER:NASDAQ), has spun off a memory company called Ovonyx Inc. that has partnered with Intel Corp.(INTC:NASDAQ) to pursue PRAM advancement.

Like flash, phase-change chips are also nonvolatile, which means that they can hold their electrical charge and their data after the power has been turned off. But while flash loses some of its effectiveness as it shrinks in size, phase-change chips can be made many times smaller.

At the center of this technology is a tiny piece of semiconducting alloy that can be effectively switched between two states, crystalline and amorphous, by an electrical charge. These on-off movements can be translated into the series of ones and zeros that all digital data is comprised of. And because no electrical current is needed to maintain the crystalline and amorphous states, the memory is completely preserved when the power is off.

It is essentially the same process that has delivered the functionality of CDs and DVDs for years now. Instead of using a laser to read the disc, however, phase change chips use electricity to accomplish the same task.

The movement to replace flash received a huge boost in December when IBM (IBM:NYSE) revealed that its team has built and demonstrated a prototype phase-change memory device that switched more than 500 times faster than flash while using less than half the power to write data into a cell.

Developed with its partners in the venture, Macronix (MXIC:NASDAQ) and Qimonda (QI:NYSE), IBM’s device employs a new semiconductor alloy created in an exhaustive search conducted at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA. It was designed with the help of mathematical simulations specifically for use in phase-change memory cells.

The device’s cross-section is a minuscule 3 by 20 nanometers in size, far smaller than the dimensions flash can be built with today and equivalent to the industry’s chip-making capabilities targeted for 2015.

This new result shows that, unlike flash, phase-change memory technology can improve as it gets smaller in accordance with Moore’s Law.

"These results dramatically demonstrate that phase-change memory has a very bright future," said Dr. T. C. Chen, Vice President of Science & 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."

IBM’s announcement capped a busy fall in the phase-change arena. In September 2006, Samsung announced a prototype 512 Mb device. The announcement was something of a surprise, and the device was especially notable for its fairly high density. The prototype features a cell size of only 46.7 nm, which is smaller than commercial flash devices currently available.

Following Samsung’s announcement, Intel and STMicroelectronic (STM:NYSE) also got into the act. They demonstrated their own PRAM devices at the 2006 Intel Developers Forum in October. They showcased a 128 Mb device that they have recently started to fabricate at STMicroelectronics’s facilities in Italy. Intel stated that the devices were strictly proof-of-concept, but that they expect to start sampling within months and have widespread commercial production going within a few years.

For the consumer, this change from flash to PRAM means that new and smaller devices with more robust memory will become available in the future. And for investors looking to cash in on these developments, it means a share of the huge market in flash, which stands to top $18 billion in sales in 2007.

Either way, someday soon the ways that we use flash memory today will be eventually replaced by technology that is both faster and smaller. After all, it is ingrained in the mindset of the of the electronics industry and it is headed to a store near you.


Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,



Steve Christ, Editor 

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