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IBM is reviving an experimental memory type that could replace all others

Heightening performance expectations have spurred multiple parallel efforts to develop faster memory in recent years, but the answer to the growing demand for speed may come from a much older source. Two new patent applications reveal that IBM is working to revive a storage technology dating back to the 1990s that could blow everything else out of the water.

Magnetoresistive random-access memory, or MRAM, was first hatched in Motorola’s skunkworks at the dawn of consumer handhelds as an alternative to conventional mediums that only retain data while powered. Instead of storing bits as an electric charge or current flows, the technology uses magnetic plates that can provide the performance of the fastest DRAM without the volatility.

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Ahead of its time, Motorola soon had to abandon the project to focus on the more pressing issue of Nokia’s startling rise and passed over the mantle to IBM, which teamed up with a German outfit called Infineon at the turn of the millennium to keep pushing MRAM forward. Not much came from that partnership, but its continued work in the background has since brought the technology much closer to mass-production than we previously believed.

The two MRAM patents revealed in the latest batch of Big Blue’s filings to have reached their publication date last week pertain to a promising new variation that employs a technique known as Thermal Assisted Switching. It involves putting the memory cell in a magnetic stasis that keeps its contents safe and sound over long periods of time and can be easily broken by applying heat when the bits need to be accessed or changed.

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The technique was developed at another European organization called Spintec with which IBM likewise partnered a few year ago, evidently to much greater result. The first of the patents details a reinforced heating mechanism that increases the thermal durability of an MRAM cell to help defrost data more reliably, while the other is an armature-like structure that serves to concentrate the magnetic field that is applied immediately after the heating to make modifications.

It’s in reality little more than a layer of ferromagnetic material applied above the cell in a formation that focuses the current flowing from the read/write mechanism on the magnetic plates, but the benefits are significant: Less dispersion means reduced power requirements, which can add up to major savings across all the read/write operations performed during the lifetime of a memory card made up of billions of individual MRAM cells.

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The result is MRAM that is more durable and serves data with much greater reliability all the while consuming less power. Of course, the technology still has very long way to go until becoming a truly  viable alternative to traditional media, but with IBM, the originator of disk storage, at the driver’s seat, the future of digital memory is looking brighter than ever.
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