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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

MRAM doesn't wear out because spin torque technology uses a tiny current to switch a bit from a zero to a one and vice versa. Data is stored as a magnetic state versus an electronic charge, providing a non-volatile memory bit that doesn't suffer wear-out or data-retention issues associated with NAND flash technology.

Unlike NAND flash, spin-torque MRAM technology transistors don't need to be erased first before being rewritten with new data, which also greatly simplifies chip design and reduces overhead.

IBM, with a partner, plans to optimize the MRAM's engineering parameters for mass production in as little as three years. IBM has expertise in magnetic materials and devices, and in MRAM circuit design, which will accelerate the path to products for its partners, such as Samsung.

IBM has been working on developing MRAM chips for  20 years. Prior to the latest development, the company could not scale down the technology enough to make the chips financially viable for manufacturing.

In a new blog, IBM stated that "MRAM is an ideal technology for always-on devices, such as IoT sensors, mobile devices and wearable electronics, because it offers more storage and longer battery life. In addition, since MRAM uses standard transistors, and is compact and robust, it's more easily embedded on the same chip as logic and other functions, compared to flash memory. Therefore many semiconductor foundries are considering replacing embedded flash with embedded STT MRAM at the 28nm size and below."

IBM, Samsung STT MRAM memory 

An image taken with an electron microscope of an MRAM and 11nm 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 a "1."

There are new memories technologies in various stages of commercial development that are poised to replace NAND flash as a non-volatile storage medium - meaning data remains even after the power is turned off.

Among the top candidates being developed are Memristor, or Resistive Random Access Memory (ReRAM), Phase Change Memory (PCM), Ferroelectric Random Access Memory (FeRAM), and MRAM. Out of the list of new memories, only FeRAM and MRAM account for "a reasonable market share and they are quite commercialized in the market," according to a report by MarketsandMarkets.

IBM is not alone in its development of MRAM.

In 2011, Hynix Semiconductor and Toshiba Corp. formed an MRAM development partnership. That same year, Samsung acquired Grandis Inc., a Milpitas, Calif., maker of STT MRAM technology. At the time, however, the technology was too expensive to mass produce. That changed as chips were miniaturized and processes become more standardized.


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