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IBM and Samsung achieve breakthrough on flash killer for wearables, mobile devices

Lucas Mearian | July 13, 2016
MRAM could last virtually forever

IBM and development partner Samsung announced they've developed a process to manufacture a type of non-volatile RAM that is up to 100,000 times faster than NAND flash and never wears out.

The two companies collaborated to develop next-generation magnetoresistive RAM (MRAM) using spin-transfer torque (STT) technology, which would lead to low-capacity memory chips for Internet of Things sensors, wearables and mobile devices that currently use NAND flash to store data.

IBM and Samsung published a paper in the journal ScienceDirect outlining how they scaled STT MRAM down to 11 nanometers for the first time by using 10 nanosecond pulses and just 7.5 microamperes — "a significant achievement."

IBM, Samsung STT MRAM memory IBM

NAND flash on average takes one microsecond to write data compared to MRAM's 10 nanoseconds -- meaning MRAM is 100,000 times faster than NAND flash on writes and 10,000 times faster on reads, said Daniel Worledge, the senior manager of MRAM development at IBM Research, in an email reply to Computerworld.

"This is important because it now falls into the sweet spot compared to other memory technologies and this level makes it viable to manufacture," Worledge said.

"This could never be done with in-plane magnetized devices — they just don't scale," Worledge said, referring to hard disk drives and NAND flash. "While more research needs to be done, this should give the industry the confidence it needs to move forward. The time for Spin Torque MRAM is now."

Spin-torque MRAM can be used for a new type of working memory in ultra-low power applications. For example, it can be used in IoT or mobile devices, where it uses very low power when it's on and storing information, and when it's not actively being used, it uses zero power because it's not volatile.

Worledge said he doesn't believe that IBM's STT MRAM will replace DRAM anytime soon, but he said it can easily replace embedded flash, since MRAM is easier to embed, is faster and has unlimited reads and writes.

rcj ibm samsung spin torque mram bit 1 IBM

Each cell of a Spin Torque MRAM array contains one transistor and one tunnel junction. The tunnel junction is composed of a fixed magnet whose north pole always points up, and a free magnet whose north pole points up or down, when storing a "0" or "1."

"If you look at flash memory, which is what you use in your digital camera, it can only be written about 10,000 times before it wears out. That's fine for taking photos, but if you were to use it as a working memory, it would wear out in less than a second," Worledge said.


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