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Phase change memory wafer manufactured at 90nm
Intel claims it will mass produce phase change memory before the end of 2007

This week Intel privately shared parts of its roadmap for memory technologies through 2008. Intel’s progress on phase-change memory, PCM or PRAM, will soon be sampled to customers with mass production possible before the end of the year.

Phase-change memory is positioned as a replacement for flash memory, as it has non-volatile characteristics, but is faster and can be scaled to smaller dimensions. Flash memory cells can degrade and become unreliable after as few as 10,000 writes, but PCM is much more resilient at more than 100 million write cycles. For these reasons, Intel believes that phase-change memory could one day replace DRAM.

“The phase-change memory gets pretty close to Nirvana,” said Ed Doller, CTO of Intel’s flash memory group. “It will start to displace some of the RAM in the system.”

For its implementation of phase-change memory, Intel has since 2000 licensed technology from Ovonyx Inc.. The Ovonyx technology uses the properties of chalcogenide glass, the same material found in CD-RW and DVD-RW, which can be switched between crystalline and amorphous states for binary functions.

Every potential PCRAM memory maker thus far licenses Ovonyx technology. According to Ovonyx’s Web site, the first licensee of the technology was Lockheed Martin in 1999, with Intel and STMicroelectronics in the following year. Four years after that, Nanochip signed an agreement.  Elpida and Samsung were the next two in 2005, and Qimonda marks the latest with a signing this year.

IBM, Macronix and Qimonda detailed last December its recent developments on phase-change memory. Researchers at IBM’s labs demonstrated a prototype phase-change memory device that switched more than 500 times faster than flash while using less than one-half the power to write data into a cell. The IBM device’s cross-section is a minuscule 3 by 20 nanometers in size, far smaller than flash can be built today and equivalent to the industry’s chip-making capabilities targeted for 2015.

Intel’s initial phase-change technology, however, is already a reality, as the chipmaker revealed that it has produced a 90 nanometer phase-change memory wafer. At the 90 nanometer process size, the power requirements to write are approximate to that required for flash. Intel said that its early test work shows data retention abilities of greater than 10 years even at temperatures of 85 degree Celsius.

Intel touts PCM as a “new category of memory,” as its attributes are distinctly different, and typically superior to many of the memory technologies today as it combines the best attributes of RAM, NOR and NAND. Intel wouldn’t give a firm date on the availability of its phase-change memory as several details still need to be finalized after the sampling process.

“We're going to be using this to allow customers to get familiar with the technology and help us architect the next generation device.” Doller said. “We're hoping we can see [mass] production by the end of the year, but that depends on the customers.”





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