Intel Previews Potential Replacement for Flash Memory

The chip maker offers a glimpse at its first finished Phase Change Memory chip. The nonvolatile chip technology can be used to store data or execute code.

SAN FRANCISCO-Intel literally has, in hand, the first prototype of a new type of nonvolatile memory chip that its executives think could someday supplant flash memory and thus change the face of the industries such as cellular phones, music players and possibly even PCs.

Intel, as part of a lengthy joint venture with ST Microelectronics, has produced the first Phase Change Memory or PCM chips-nonvolatile memory chips that work well for both executing code and storing large amounts of data, giving it a superset of the capabilities of both flash memory and dynamic random access memory.

This means it can both execute code with performance, store larger amounts of memory and also sustain millions of read/write cycles.

Its necessary to invest in technologies such as PCM because flash memory will eventually hit a wall in which it can no longer scale with silicon manufacturing.

"This is pretty exciting stuff," said Ed Doller, chief technology officer for Intels Flash Memory Group, based in Folsom, Calif., during an interview with eWEEK.

"Were getting pretty close to the limits [of fabricating silicon] in developing NOR and NAND flash memory; our engineers are wondering Whats next?"

Doller reached for an often-used but appropriate saying: "This is a case in which Necessity is the mother of invention is very true. We were forced to look for something else, completely different. Thats why we decided to invest in PCM.

"There are definitely limits to what you can do with our current flash methodology. There needs to be a complete quantum leap somewhere along the line to push everything forward. We believe PCM are going to be that quantum leap."

Moreover, PCM has the potential to go into production before many other flash alternatives, he said.

During the interview, Doller produced what he said was one of the very first PCM wafers, containing numerous 128-megabit PCM chips produced in a ST Microelectronics chip plant in Agrate, Italy, and sent to him just hours before.

Doller opened a round, black plastic container to reveal several foam protective separations around a 10-inch round wafer of chips safely packaged in between.

Next page: Whats inside PCM chips?