Intel one step closer to PCM mass-production

  • Santa Clara (CA) – Intel took a huge step towards being able to put a new memory technology into production – a technology that is believed to have the genes to replace flash one day: The firm’s first phase change memory chip (PCM) is sampling now.

    Earlier today, we had talked about Sandisk’s progress to breathe new life into the future of flash and its capability to extend the technology to 64 GB memory cards in the not too distant future. A few hours later, Intel told us that it has produced prototypes of PCM devices and is shipping samples to customers now. Codenamed “Alverstone” the devices are 256 Mb multi-level (2 bit) cell devices manufactured in 90 nm.  

    The technology is being developed by Numonyx, a recently announced joint venture of Intel and ST Microelectronics. PCM uses an approach of storing data that is very similar to CDs and DVDs and Intel has been working on the concept of the memory at least since 2001 (back then Intel called it “ovonics” memory). PCM takes advantage of the characteristics of chalcogenide glass, switching the state of the material between crystalline and amorphous through heat. The change of state results in a change of its electrical resistivity and is the underlying concept of storing data with this technology. Just like flash, PCM is non-volatile, meaning that data remains stored, even when the power to the device is turned off.

    One of the key challenges in the development of PCM is the heat-sensitivity of the material. Intel, however, appears to have made significant progress and discussed at ISSCC 2008 a PCM device that has been taken through a test parcours while changing the temperature of the environment by 125 degrees Celsius over a 48 hour period. According to the company, the device survived 100,000 erase/write cycles during this test without problems.

    "This is the most significant non-volatile memory advancement in 40 years," said Ed Doller, chief technology officer-designate of Numonyx, in a prepared statement. "There have been plenty of attempts to find and develop new non-volatile memory technologies, yet of all the concepts, PCM provides the most compelling solution - and Intel and STMicroelectronics are delivering PCM into the hands of customers today.

    Numonyx will focus on “supplying complete memory solutions for a variety of consumer and industrial devices, including cellular phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, computers and other high-tech equipment,” Intel said. The company is expected to be fully operational and out of the joint venture creation process sometime in this quarter.  

    It is interesting to note that Intel was the first company to manufacture flash memory. Back in 1989, the 256 KB NOR flash device (a flash type that is used in read-heavy applications such as for storing operating systems), was the size of a shoe box. Last month, Jim McGregor, an analyst with In-Stat, speculated that Intel may actually be considering dropping its flash business completely.