Electronic Design

New Memory Technology Utilizes Magnetic Charges

Magnetic random-access memory, or MRAM, uses magnetic rather than electrical charges to store data bits. While this prototype memory has so far existed only in the laboratories of IBM Corp., the company plans to propel MRAM into commercial production. Infineon Technologies AG, a Germany-based memory-chip manufacturer, will aid in the production.

Current dynamic and synchronous RAM chips store data bits in the form of electrical charges. Electrical power is required to retain data in standard memory configurations. MRAM, however, needs no electrical power since it uses magnetism to store data. A magnetic material situated between two metal layers stores the ones and zeros that comprise digital data. When electrical current is passed through the memory chip, the magnetic material's polarity is switched to capture the data.

IBM projects that the MRAM chips will accommodate 256 Mbytes of data or more with successive generations. Moreover, MRAMs can significantly increase the battery life of portable computing devices. IBM has chosen Infineon as a partner in this venture due to Infineon's expertise in creating high-density semiconductor memory.

This revolutionary type of memory enables "instant-on" computing. In a computer with traditional memory, the system works from a copy of its software stored in memory. When turned on, the system copies a version of the software from the hard disk into memory so the user can access it quickly. This process begins again each time the system is restarted. Since MRAM retains data when turned off, there is no need for this copying procedure. No longer would it be necessary to wait for a laptop or PC to boot up.

According to the company, MRAM can store more information, access it more quickly, and require less power than conventional memory in computers, cell phones, and game systems. In computer server applications, MRAM can enable faster downloads. It can also enable wireless video and more accurate speech recognition in cell-phone applications. MRAM may potentially compete with Flash memory chips that retain data when powered down. According to IBM researchers, MRAM combines the high speed of static RAM, the storage capacity and low cost of dynamic RAM, and the nonvolatility of Flash.

Research contributing to the MRAM technology has been ongoing since 1974, when IBM developed a miniature component called a magnetic terminal junction. By 1998, the device was adapted for use in information storage and incorporated into the prototype

The company projects the release of MRAM test versions by 2003. Volume production of the chips, though, will not occur until sometime in 2004. For more details, point your browser to www.infineon.com or www.ibm.com.

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