Intel moves closer to flash memory replacement

Intel has been tinkering with a concept of a phase change memory device chip for nearly 30 years. Intel CTO Justin Rattner demonstrated a 128-bit sample of code-name Alverston 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 chip, made of a material similar to the material that makes up CD ROM discs, is divided up into tiny bits.

When heated, the material inside a single bit turns crystalline. As a light is shined on the bit, the reflected image is registered as a binary value of "1". When reheated and cooled, the same bit becomes amorphous and becomes a "0". Phase-change memory is seen as a replacement for flash memory 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.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore talked up the potential for Ovonics memory, a variant of phase change memory, in a September 1970 article for Electronics magazine. In 2001, the company touted it as a possible flash replacement and analysts predicted it could hit the market by ~2003. 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. However, 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 neighbouring bits.

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