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1970s memory idea gains ground with IBM, Samsung

Phase change memory, one of the ideas that's been bounced around the technology industry for over thirty years, got a big endorsement this week from IBM and Samsung.

At a technology summit at its Almaden labs, IBM researchers said that phase change memory--in which a light source heats and cools minute bits on a medium to create 1s and 0s--could become a reality in a few years. In phase change memory, also known as Ovonics, a computer determines if a bit is a 1 or 0 depending if a particular bit is crystalline or amorphous.

"You can go down to cell sizes of 10 nanometers in dimension," said IBM's Gian-Luca Bona. IBM has developed prototypes of the memory.

Samsung, meanwhile, has created a 512-megabit phase change memory device. It will show it off later this year. Last year, Philips Research came out with a material for producing phase change memory.

Phase change memory could replace flash, which retains data even if the power in the computer shuts off, and DRAM, used inside computers.

The push to get a replacement for flash memory comes as a result of Moore's Law. Chip makers want to shrink the size of memory cells, but it's getting more difficult.

One of the leading candidates to replace flash, magnetic RAM, looks good and Freescale Semiconductor has already come out with an MRAM device. Shrinking MRAM, however, is proving to be tough. The cell sizes are big too.

"You really need a lot of real estate," said Bona.

Phase change memory cells are small. However, controlling the heat has always been a challenge.

Back in 1970, Gordon Moore, the man behind Moore's Law, predicted a strong future for the technology, but no one has commercially mass-produced Ovonic memory yet.

Iris Ovshinsky, credited as one of the prime forces behind Ovonics, died earlier this month.