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New Memory Device Could Trash Flash

Leap-frogging Moore's Law, scientists from IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) will announce on Wednesday a prototype of a new type of memory device that has the potential to replace flash memory in mobile devices such as music players, cell phones, and digital cameras.

Called "phase-change memory," the new technology runs more than 500 times faster than today's flash memory while using less than half the power to store information. Like flash, phase-change memory is "non-volatile" in that it retains data even when power to the device is switched off.

"Many expect flash memory to encounter significant scaling limitations in the near future," said Dr. T. C. Chen, vice president of science and technology at IBM Research, in a statement. The new phase-change memory, he added, "has high performance even in an extremely small volume."

In other words, unlike flash, phase-change memory technology can improve as it gets smaller. The prototype device has a cross section of 3 nanometers (nm) by 20 nm, far smaller than flash can be built today and equaling the industry's chip-making size goals for 2015.

Because it uses so much less power, the new technology could also help solve the battery-life limitations now facing mobile-device makers.

Developed by IBM scientists working with two semiconductor companies, Taipei-based Macronix and Qimonda AG, of Germany, the new technology has been the subject of intense research by semiconductor giants over the last few years. Both Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. (Korea: SEC) have debuted phase-change prototypes in the last year. Commercial production could begin as early as 2008, although actual consumer products bearing phase-change devices are probably another two or three years off.

Finding a successor to flash is crucial to the mobile-device industry because flash memory faces a "brick wall" at around 45 nm, beyond which the technology will leak current at unacceptable levels.

Built around a core of a sophisticated alloy of germanium and antimony, phase-change memory devices work by alternating between a crystalline, ordered "phase," or arrangement of atoms, and a random, "amorphous" phase. An electrical pulse triggers the rapid shift by heating the alloy almost to the melting point.

So powerful and economic is phase-change memory, at least in theory, that it is seen as a possible replacement for disk drives in computers.

Authored by IBM scientist Y.C. Chen and 23 other scientists from IBM, Macronix, and Qimonda, the technical paper on phase-change, entitled "Ultra-Thin Phase-Change Bridge Memory Device Using GeSb," will be presented on Wednesday at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) 's 2006 International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) in San Francisco.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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