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July 10, 2006 6:45 pm

Freescale ahead in MRAM chip race

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A new memory technology based on magnetism that could eventually supersede existing types of computer memory has made its commercial debut.

Freescale, the chipmaker spun out of Motorola, is announcing the first Magnetoresistive Random Access Memory (MRAM) device, more than ten years after it first began research into the technology.

Other chip companies, including IBM, Infineon, Renesas, Toshiba and NEC, have also been racing to produce MRAM chips, but Freescale is the first to achieve volume production for a commercial device.

“This has been the Holy Grail of memory,” says Will Strauss, principal analyst at the Forward Concepts research firm. “I think it’s the most significant memory introduction so far in this decade, others have been evolutionary, this is completely new.”

Memory chips are used in countless devices, the most popular being types of Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) chips found in personal computers and Flash memory common in MP3 players, digital cameras and mobile phones.

DRAM needs a small electrical charge to access it and is volatile – it loses its data when a computer is switched off, while Flash is non-volatile – it retains data such as digital photos and music when there is no power.

MRAM also does not need an electrical charge to retain information and the 1s and 0s of data are determined by whether there is high or low resistance between two magnetic plates that operate like transistors. The technology can achieve higher speeds than Flash and has far greater endurance as the magnetic switching from high to low does not involve movement of electrons and atoms that could wear out the mechanism.

MRAM will initially be expensive to produce and Freescale is aiming its first four-megabit product as a replacement for a version of Static Random Access Memory (SRAM), which is similar to DRAM but can require batteries as power back-up. MRAM does not need batteries.

The device can be used in networking, security, data storage, gaming and printer products.

“We do not have the densities [in megabit size] or the cost structure yet [compared to Flash or DRAM], but there’s nothing about the technology that says we can’t get there,” says Saied Tehrani, director of MRAM at Freescale.

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