The advance will be described in a technical paper to be presented Monday at the International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco by researchers from IBM and two computer memory manufacturers, Qimonda and Macronix. The scientists have designed a new semiconductor alloy derived from materials currently used in optical storage devices like CDs and DVDs.
This team is not the only entrant in the race to find alternatives to--so called because it can retain information without power. Intel and STMicroelectronics have formed a partnership to pursue the technology, and, separately, Samsung has made announcements in the field.
Intel has shown 128-megabit prototype chips and said it planned to introduce products in 2007. that it expects to market in 2008.
IBM scientists say their announcement is significant because the company's new material has performance advantages over alloys now in use in prototypes made by others in the industry.
If the technology proves cheap enough to manufacture, it will create a new competitor in the $18.6 billion market for the inexpensive erasable memory chips that have proliferated in mobile phones, music players and other consumer gadgets in recent years.
Moreover, although IBM has withdrawn from the memory chip business, the company said it was intensely interested in the technology for corporate computing applications like transaction processing. Faster nonvolatile memory could change the design of the microprocessors that IBM makes, speeding up a variety of basic operations.
The new memory technology could potentially be added to a future generation of the IBM Power PC microprocessor, according to Spike Narayan, a senior manager at the company's Almaden Research Center.
Over two and a half years, in a trial-and-error process, scientists here explored a class of materials that can be switched from an amorphous state to a crystalline one and then back again by repeated heating. The compounds, known as GST, or germanium-, are routinely used today to make inexpensive optical discs that are read from and written to with laser beams.
The IBM-led team has proved that the same effect can be realized by using a small electrical current. That has made it possible to build tiny memory cells that can store digital 1's and 0's by means of electricity rather than light. IBM scientists say the new material is an alloy composed of just germanium and antimony, and is referred to as GS. The scientists do not describe the material in detail in the paper.
The advantage of the new material, according to the scientists, is that it can be used to create switches over 500 times faster than today's flash chips. Moreover, the prototype switch developed by the scientists is just 3 nanometers high by 20 nanometers wide, offering the promise that the technology can be shrunk to smaller dimensions than could be attained by flash manufacturers.
The current generation of flash memory chips store as much as 32 billion bits on a chip. But that technology is likely to become increasingly problematic as chipmakers struggle to reach ever finer dimensions.
Reached for comment late last week, Vivek Subramanian, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who has read the technical paper describing the project, said, "Everybody recognizes that scaling flash is going to be a problem in the long run. This looks like a really attractive technology that is both scaleable and consumes little power."
Industry executives said that the new materials might bolster the computer and consumer electronics industries just when it appeared they were nearing fundamental engineering limits.
"This is a Christmas present for the industry because it shatters so many things at once," said Richard Doherty, consulting firm Envisioneering's president, who has been briefed on the technical paper. "This could change the basic equation between processors, local storage and communications."