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Magnetic Memory Chip to Be Unveiled

Freescale's MRAM can store data without using electricity and doesn't degrade over time.

July 10, 2006|By the Associated Press

DALLAS — Achieving a long-sought goal of the $48-billion memory chip industry, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. is set to announce today the commercial availability of a chip that combines traditional memory's endurance with a hard drive's ability to keep data while powered down.

The chips, called magnetoresistive random-access memory, or MRAM, maintain information by relying on magnetic properties rather than an electrical charge. Unlike flash memory, which also can keep data without power, MRAM is fast to read and write and doesn't degrade over time.

Freescale, which was spun off from Motorola Inc. in July 2004, said it had been producing the four-megabit MRAM chips at an Arizona factory for two months to build inventory. Chip makers have been pursuing the technology for a decade or more, including IBM Corp.

Sometimes referred to as "universal" memory, MRAM could displace many chips found in every electronic device, including PCs, cellphones, music players, cameras and the computing components of kitchen appliances, cars and airplanes.

"This is the most significant memory introduction in this decade," said Will Strauss, an analyst with research firm Forward Concepts. "This is radically new technology. People have been dabbling in this for years, but nobody has been able to make it in volume."

Electronic memory is ubiquitous in today's world, but each type of memory-chip technology has different strengths and weaknesses. Oftentimes, a single device has multiple types of memory chips to take advantage of the benefits of each technology.

Static and dynamic random-access memory chips, used in PCs and elsewhere, are fast but lose data when the power is switched off. Flash memory chips, which are commonly found in music players, cameras and cellphones, retain information but are slower and degrade over time.

Bob Merritt, an analyst with Semico Research Corp., said memory makers were hunting technology that would be faster, smaller and cheaper and would retain data when the power is off.

"The older memory technologies are awkward to work with in a mobile computing environment," Merritt said. "This is a significant step forward and absolutely critical for moving into the smaller forms that consumers and industry want."

Ultimately, the technology could enable PCs to boot up immediately because data would not have to be reloaded into the memory chips.

Freescale has been working on the technology for nearly a decade, said Saied Tehrani, who directs the Austin-based company's MRAM program. He said Freescale already had customers but declined to name them.

Freescale said it was not interested in high-volume markets but would license its patents to other companies.

The first markets for MRAM chips are likely to be in automotive and industrial settings, in which durability is crucial. Tehrani said the chips also would be suited for data-logging devices, such as airline black boxes that store data on aircraft performance that must be recoverable after a crash.

MRAM is one of several emerging technologies that could replace established chips, at least in some applications.

Texas Instruments Inc. and other companies are working with Colorado-based Ramtron International Corp. to develop higher-capacity chips using FRAM, or ferroelectric random-access memory. It also retains data in the absence of electricity.

Although FRAM has been commercially available for several years, its use has been limited to niche applications. A TI spokesman said FRAM could be embedded in TI's digital signal processors or microcontrollers.

Most of the companies working on MRAM have touted prototypes and research advances but have been quiet about commercial production plans. That could change after Freescale's announcement.

"Freescale is the first one that says, 'I'm ready to take orders,' " said Merritt, the Semico analyst. "Other companies will start to say, 'Here's where I am in my program.' We'll see who shows up."

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