Taiwan group expects PRAM chips in three years

Magnetoresistive RAM, another rival to DRAM, may be available by the end of 2008

A government-funded Taiwanese research institute says it will have phase-change memory products out within three years, while another memory technology to rival DRAM, MRAM (magnetoresistive RAM), may be available by the end of 2008.

The Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), in partnership with six Taiwanese chipmakers, started developing phase-change memory two years ago. So far, the group has been awarded about 50 patents for the technology and produced prototype chips and finished silicon wafers. Silicon wafers are the raw materials chips are etched on, and a single wafer holds dozens or hundreds of finished chips. A finished wafer is a sign of progress for a new chip manufacturing technology.

The original research partnership between ITRI and its chip partners will end next June, but a new partnership will likely be formed, said Chang Shun-hsien, promotion manager for ITRI's Nanoelectronic Technology Division.

PRAM can retain data when power to the chips is shut off, similar to conventional flash memory. But PRAM can rewrite data 30 times faster flash memory, and is expected to have at least 10 times the life span.

Several other companies are also developing phase-change memory, which serve as a replacement for DRAM and other applications, such as embedded memory.

ITRI may not be the first to market with a PRAM product. That honor could go to Samsung Electronics, the world's largest memory chipmaker, which unveiled a working prototype of a 512MB chip last year, and expects to make them available commercially in early 2008.

But ITRI and other companies could beat Samsung with chips that have bigger capacities or serve different functions.

The chipmakers involved in the ITRI project are Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), ProMOS Technologies, Powerchip Semiconductor, Nanya Technology, Macronix International, and Winbond Electronics.

Other chipmakers developing phase-change memory include Intel, IBM, Qimonda, STMicroelectronics, Hynix Semiconductor, and Ovonyx.

TSMC and ITRI are also working on MRAM technology. The two have been awarded more than 40 patents related to MRAM technology, said Chang. TSMC will likely have the technology ready and available for customers by the end of next year or early in 2009, he said.

MRAM combines the ability to retain data when power is shut off with fast processing speeds comparable to DRAM. DRAM is speedy, but it cannot retain data without electrical power.

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