Racetrack memory to change the storage landscape within a decade

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Racetrack memory to change the storage landscape within a decade

Advancements in the development of spintronics-based storage technology could provide a basis for lightning-fast devices capable of holding a hundred times more data in the same amount of space than is possible today.

Developed by researchers at IBM’s Almaden Research Centre, racetrack memory combines the high performance and reliability of flash with the low cost and high capacity of hard disk drives to yield solid state electronic devices that are cheaper, more durable, more stable, and faster than storage devices of today.

Racetrack memory is named for the physical configuration in which information is stored: in tiny magnetic domains within a U-shaped, nanoscopic wire that is embedded into a silicon chip. Each successive domain wall along the racetrack has an opposite magnetic charge to its neighbours, hence altering the magnetic spin of electrons as current passes through the wire.

Since racetrack memory has no moving parts and stores data in the spin of electrons rather than as ensembles of electric charge, it has no wear-out mechanism and so can be rewritten endlessly without any wear and tear, according to Stuart Parkin, who leads the IBM research team.

Expounding the respective drawbacks of currently used solid state random access flash memory (RAM) and the magnetic hard disk drive, Parkin expects racetrack technology to have a significant impact on the IT landscape.

“We're moving into a world that is more data-centric than computing-centric,” said Parkin, IBM Research Fellow and Director of IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center. “It [Racetrack memory] will not only change the way we look at storage, but the way we look at processing information.”

“The devices would not only store vastly more information in the same space, but also require much less power and generate much less heat, and be practically unbreakable,” he told iTnews, forecasting future devices that provide massive amounts of personal storage that could run on a single battery for weeks at a time and last for decades.

While he expects racetrack memory to be commercially available within the next five to 10 years, Parkin said that the research team still faced developmental hurdles.

The team has previously encountered problems in experimentally producing speeds that have been predicted in theory, due to imperfections in the silicon chip. Now, the researchers are investigating the interaction of spin-polarised current with magnetic moments, the result of which may allow a reduction in current and enable lower-power devices.

“We expect that our exploration of a wide variety of materials and structures will provide new insight into domain wall dynamics driven by current, making possible domain wall based memory and even logic devices that were previously inconceivable,” Parkin said.

Ultimately, researchers are looking to expand the racetrack concept into the third dimension. By constructing a three-dimensional racetrack memory device, the IBM research team hopes to instigate a paradigm shift from traditional two-dimensional arrays of transistors and magnetic bits found in the silicon-based microelectronic devices and hard disk drives of today.

“By moving into the third dimension, racetrack memory stands to open new possibilities for developing less expensive, faster devices because it is not dependent on miniaturisation as dictated by Moore’s Law,” Parkin explained.

“The promise of racetrack memory - for example, the ability to carry massive amounts of information in your pocket - could unleash creativity leading to devices and applications that nobody has imagined yet,” he added.
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