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RAM you can switch off

Taiwan firms help develop next-generation memory tech

Two Taiwanese organisations could be about to change the way we look at computer memory — making RAM you can power down without losing data.

In a move that may lead to the development of cheaper memory that's able to store data without power, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, more easily known as TSMC, is to jointly research and develop MRAM (magnetic random access memory) technology with Erso, the Electronics Research and Service Organisation of the Taiwanese government-backed Itri (Industrial Technology Research Institute).

MRAM is a non-volatile memory technology based on magnetoresistive materials that is currently under development by several leading chip makers, including IBM and Intel.

When it becomes commercially available, MRAM is expected to offer the ability to store large volumes of data without requiring power — a feature that makes the memory technology attractive for use in mobile applications, such as mobile phones and portable computers.

MRAM stores data by applying magnetic fields that cause magnetic materials to enter one of two magnetic states. By comparison, existing memory technologies, such as SRAM (static RAM) and DRAM (dynamic RAM), use an electric charge to store data.

Another benefit of MRAM is cost. While it is still too early to tell what kind of yield chip makers like TSMC will be able to get, MRAM will be produced using standard semiconductor technology like that used to make DRAM, making MRAM cheaper to produce than other non-volatile memory types, such as Flash, which require specialised technology.

Initially expected to replace Flash memory in some applications from the middle of the decade, MRAM also holds out the potential to replace SRAM and DRAM in many applications. "Most people predict that within 10 years it can compete with DRAM," said Ming-Jinn Tsai, director of Itri's Semiconductor Technology Division.

One possible area where TSMC may be planning to use MRAM is in system-on-chip, or SOC products, Tsai said. SOCs incorporate several functions, such as a processor core and memory, on a single piece of silicon, reducing the number of chips and amount of power needed in a device such as a mobile phone. Incorporating MRAM on a SOC would further reduce power consumption and costs compared with other memory types.


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