IBM promotes cheaper, faster memory

Spintronics is basis of development

IBM is developing a type of memory that it says could one day be faster and more reliable than today's hard drives and flash memory.

Called "racetrack", it is a solid-state memory that aims to combine the best attributes of flash, such as having no moving parts, and the low cost of hard drives for an inexpensive form of non-volatile memory that will be stable and durable, says Stuart Parkin, an IBM Fellow.

Racetrack memory stores information in thousands of atoms in magnetic nanowires. Without the atoms moving, an electrical charge causes data to move swiftly along a U-shaped pipe that allows data to be read and written in less than a nanosecond, Parkin says. A nanosecond is a billionth of a second and commonly used to measure access time to RAM.

The memory reads 16 bits of data through one transistor, so it reads and writes information 100,000 times faster than flash memory, Parkin says.

"In flash memory and hard drives, one transistor can access one bit, or with flash, maybe two or possibly even four bits, that's it. We are going to use ... a transistor to access many bits of information."

Racetrack is still in its early days. The concept was proposed four or five years ago, Parkin says, and IBM hopes to be able to provide terabytes worth of storage from such devices in a few years.

"It will take two to four years to build a prototype in which we build these reading-and-writing elements on a nanoscopic scale. In four years we can perhaps demonstrate it works and then manufacture it," Parkin says.

Racetrack memory has no moving parts, it is "virtually unbreakable" and will never wear out, unlike flash drives, which could wear out after 10,000 read-and-write cycles, Parkin says. He likens the U-shaped design of horizontal pipes to a racetrack.

The memory keeps atoms constant, making it more durable than hard drives or flash. "Whenever you start to move atoms you have problems and devices wear out from fatigue after a time," Parkin says.

Racetrack memory's storage capacity is similar to flash's and may soon exceed hard-drive capacities, Parkin says.

Hard disks rotate to access information, while racetrack memory uses an electrical charge to read and write data, so it also uses less electricity, he says.

It will be inexpensive to manufacture because fewer transistors will be required and each memory chip will hold thousands of nanowires in a small footprint, Parkin says.

The premise behind racetrack memory is spintronics, a technology that manipulates the charge and spin properties of electrons. Using spintronics, hard-drive makers have developed drives that read data from a microscopically small area.

Parkin is widely noted for his work on spintronics and helping double the density of hard drives every year. Scientists Albert Fert, of France, and Peter Grunberg, of Germany, won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2007 for their spintronics research.

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