IBM touts phase-change memory as Flash killer

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IBM touts phase-change memory as Flash killer

Faster and scalable to smaller dimensions, claims Big Blue.

Scientists from IBM, Macronix and Qimonda have published joint research predicting that emerging phase-change memory could sound the death knell for Flash.

According to the study, phase-change memory is faster than Flash and can be scaled to smaller dimensions.

This has the potential to enable future generations of high-density " non-volatile" memory devices that do not require electrical power to retain information.

By combining non-volatility with good performance and reliability, IBM suggested that phase-change technology could also enable a path towards a universal memory for mobile applications.

Working at IBM Research labs on both US coasts, the 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 just 3nm x 20nm in size, far smaller than Flash can be built today and equivalent to the industry's chip-making capabilities targeted for 2015.

The researchers said that the test shows that, unlike Flash, phase-change memory technology can improve as it gets smaller with Moore's Law advances.

"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."

The new material is a complex semiconductor alloy created in IBM's Almaden Research Centre in San José, California. It was designed with the help of mathematical simulations specifically for use in phase-change memory cells.

Big Blue explained that at the heart of phase-change memory is a tiny chunk of a semiconductor alloy that can be changed rapidly between binary states.

An ordered crystalline phase has lower electrical resistance to a disordered amorphous phase with much higher electrical resistance.

Because no electrical power is required to maintain either phase of the material, the phase-change memory is non-volatile.

The material's phase is set by the amplitude and duration of an electrical pulse that heats the material.

When heated to a temperature just above melting, the alloy's energised atoms move around into random arrangements. Suddenly stopping the electrical pulse freezes the atoms into a random, amorphous phase.

Turning the pulse off more gradually, over about 10 nanoseconds, allows enough time for the atoms to rearrange themselves back into the well-ordered crystalline phase they prefer.

The new memory material is a germanium-antimony alloy to which small amounts of other elements have been added to enhance its properties.
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