The Intel-Micron Technology joint venture, based in Lehi, Utah, announced July 25 that it has begun sampling 4-gigabit NAND flash memory chips manufactured using a new, 50-nanometer process.
The chips, which will be available in larger quantities in coming months, can store about twice as much data as those produced a year ago in 2005. Of the two types of flash memory, NAND and NOR, NAND is used most often to store large amounts of data.
Higher data storage capacity or density, largely determined by the number of memory cells present in a standard-sized flash memory chip, allows manufacturers to make music players that can store more songs or cell phones that can take more pictures. But its also the key to creating reasonably affordable solid-state hard drives for use in notebook PCs, memory makers say.
"The value today of this announcement is really the capability of this process being ready to go," said Brian Shirley, vice president of memory at Micron, in Boise, Idaho. "This 50-nanometer process will allow us, here, fairly shortly to do a lot of other very advanced densities … Things like 8-gigabits."
Finer manufacturing processes—IM Flash Technologies is moving from 72-nanometer to 50-nanometer manufacturing, which shrinks the size of the features inside the chips—allow memory makers to reduce the size of each flash memory cell.
That, in turn, increases the number of memory cells a standard-sized chip can fit, allowing it to pack in more data. Given that memory chip prices tend to stay in the same ballpark, the overall cost for storing a megabyte of data falls as capacities increase.
The 50-nanometer manufacturing, which is scheduled to reach high volumes in 2007, will help to accelerate increases in NAND chip densities, speeding the arrival of chips with capacities as high as 16G bits. Previously, IMFT had been limited to producing 8G-bit chips. A 16G-bit chip can hold about 2GB of data each, while an 8G-bit chip holds about 1GB of data, Shirley said.
Later, using even finer manufacturing technologies for a 35-nanometer process will again double NAND flash densities to 32G bits, allowing a single chip to hold 4GB of data. "What were excited about are the opportunities available in things like replacing hard drives with these kinds of densities," Shirley said. "Im a firm believer itll happen sooner [rather] than later."
Stringing together several NAND chips would deliver reasonably sized notebook hard drives that offered reductions in power consumption and increases in performance and reliability, given that solid-state drives do not contain moving parts, he said.
Indeed, at 16G-bit densities, it would take 20 NAND chips to equal a 40GB drive. But only 10 32G-bit chips would do the same job. The progression will help cut the costs of building solid-state drives, making them more attractive for use in notebooks, for example.
Thus, "To some extent, what the world is waiting for is the capability to buy these NAND devices at a high volume," Shirley said.
Micron has hinted that it may have plans to produce its own solid-state drives, following its June 2006 acquisition of Lexar Media. Lexar Media is known for making memory devices.
But Micron isnt the only chip maker pursuing solid-state drives. Samsung, for one, has already announced plans to produce solid-state hard drives.
Meanwhile, NAND flash is finding its way into PCs in other ways, namely inside hybrid hard drives, which incorporate smaller amounts of flash memory.
Hybrid hard drives, which incorporate 64MB or 128MB of flash as a buffer for storing files, are expected to be produced by numerous drive makers and used widely in notebooks in 2007. The onboard memory is said to speed boot times and increase battery life by allowing a notebook to turn off its hard drive for long periods of time while operating on battery power.
Intel, too, has devised a flash-booster for notebooks, dubbed Robson Technology. Robson places a flash memory module on a notebooks motherboard. It will be a feature of Santa Rosa, a new notebook chip platform due from Intel in the first half of 2007.
Still, solid-state hard drives arent a shoo-in. Traditional hard drives will also continue to increase in density, particularly in smaller sizes. Where notebooks with 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch drives dominated in the past, companies are now producing 1.8-inch, 1-inch and smaller drives for a variety of devices.
Flash memory also faces challenges in manufacturing. Technical issues must be solved to push past the 35-nanometer manufacturing mark, Shirley said.
However, he said, "I tend to not be too worried about those questions. Ive watched the DRAM [dynamic RAM] industry for the last 15 years. The cliff edge of doom was always right around the corner and somehow we managed to find the answer—sometimes just in time—but the answers were out there."
IMFT is already working on some new technology. On June 29, it expanded its collaboration with Nanosys, a Palo Alto, Calif., nanotechnology startup thats designing microscopic nanowires that could be used to boost the capacities of NAND flash memory chips.
Shirley declined to give specifics on IMFTs new 4G-bit chips, including their prices, citing confidential agreements with customers.