IBM races ahead with memory innovation

11 Apr 2008

MP3 players that can store half a million songs may be available within 10 years, according to IBM researchers working on new computer memory technology.

‘Racetrack’ memory has the potential to lead to more durable solid-state electronic devices with no moving parts capable of holding up to 100 times the amount of data in the same amount of space that is possible today.

Devices using this memory could store vastly more information and would require less power to run and would be practically unbreakable, IBM researchers claimed in an issue of Science published today.

Racetrack memory is the latest advance in memory technology. It seeks to use magnetic domain walls, which are the boundaries between magnetic regions or ‘domains’ in magnetic materials.

Until now, manipulating domain walls was expensive, complex and used significant power to generate the fields necessary to do so. The recent breakthrough by IBM researchers has overcome these obstacles.

According to the paper by IBM Fellow Stuart Parkin at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, his team have taken advantage of the interaction of spin polarised current with magnetisation in the domain walls; this results in a spin transfer torque on the domain wall, causing it to move. The use of spin momentum transfer considerably simplifies the memory device since the current is passed directly across the domain wall without the need for any additional field generators.

The breakthrough may see computer memory that combines the high performance and reliability of flash with the low cost and high capacity of the hard disk drive. The result could be devices with massive amounts of personal storage that could run on a single battery for weeks at a time and last for decades.

“It has been an exciting adventure to have been involved with research into metal spintronics since its inception almost 20 years ago with our work on spin-valve structures,” said Parkin. “The combination of extraordinarily interesting physics and spintronic materials engineering, one atomic layer at a time, continues to be highly challenging and very rewarding.

“The promise of racetrack memory – for example, the ability to carry massive amounts of information in your pocket – could unleash creativity leading to devices and applications that nobody has imagined yet.”

By Niall Byrne