April 17, 2007 4:45 PM PDT

Intel moves closer to flash memory replacement

Intel moves closer to flash memory replacement
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Intel demonstrated on Tuesday a memory chip based on a concept it has been tinkering with for nearly 30 years.

Code-named Alverston, the chip is a phase change memory device. Intel CTO Justin Rattner demonstrated a 128-bit sample of Alverstone at the Intel Developer Forum in Beijing and will start sending samples to customers in the first half of this year. Intel is working on the project with ST Microelectronics.

The material is similar to the material that makes up CD-ROM discs. A chip is divided up into tiny bits. When heated, the material inside a single bit turns crystalline. A light can then be shone on the bit, and the reflected image is registered as a "1" in the binary system of computers.

When reheated and cooled, the same bit becomes amorphous and becomes a "0." The amorphous "0" and crystalline "1" bits store data.

Phase-change memory is seen as a replacement for flash memory--used in cameras and phones--but it could also factor in the type of memory inserted into computers. Although manufacturers have been shrinking the size of flash memory chips rapidly and steadily over the past several years, the inherent properties and structure of flash have led many to believe that progress will begin to slow in the coming decade.

Manufacturers have been scrambling to craft alternatives out of such technologies as nanocrystals, magnetic memory and spintronics. In the past two years, many companies--Philips, Samsung and IBM (once a stronger proponent of magnetic memory)--have published research papers touting achievements with phase change, a slight indication that the technology was emerging as the leader among possible successors.

But the flirtation with phase change isn't exactly new. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore talked up the potential for Ovonics memory, a variant of phase change memory, in an article for Electronics magazine. The article came out in September 1970. (The magazine also contained an article titled "The big gamble in home video recorders.")

Phase change memory consumes little power, lasts far longer than conventional memory, and can hold large amounts of data in a small space. The bits also can't flip or get corrupted easily. The real challenge has come in manufacturing and reliability. Switching a bit from crystalline to amorphous requires pulsing it with an electronic charge or heating it up rapidly to 600 degrees Celsius without flipping the neighboring bits.

Intel has discussed Ovonics for years. In 2001, the company touted it as a possible flash replacement. At the time, analysts predicted it could hit the market by 2003.

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