IBM says 'racetrack' memory faster, more reliable than flash

Data stored as magnetic patterns on nanowires, in research breakthrough

An IBM research breakthrough could let storage devices hold hundreds of times more information than they handle today with technology IBM calls "racetrack memory," which stores data as a magnetic pattern on a nanowire 1,000 times finer than a human hair.

Here's how it works: spin polarized electrical currents cause the magnetic pattern to race along a wire track, from which data can be read or written -- in either direction - in less than a nanosecond.

"Data is written by placing a second nanowire with a special pattern on it near the first nanowire," according to an IBM video describing the research. "The data on the first nanowire can be changed by moving the pattern along the second wire. The racetrack memory would stand thousands of nanowires around the edge of a chip, potentially allowing for hundreds of times the amount of storage in the same space as today's memory."

IBM researcher Stuart Parkin and colleagues at the IBM Almaden Research Center in the US described the breakthrough in two papers in the April 11 issue of the journal Science.

Researchers have looked for ways to store information in magnetic domain walls for nearly half a century, but ran into roadblocks that made such storage schemes expensive, complex and inefficient, according to an IBM press release.

Parkin and colleagues discovered that by leveraging the interaction of spin polarized current with magnetization in the domain walls, the memory device can be simplified and hold far more information and in the same amount of space as today's technology. Such memory would also deliver "lightning-fast boot times," IBM says.

The researchers project that within the next 10 years new solid-state storage devices based on racetrack memory will hit the market, enabling, for example, an MP3 player that can store 500,000 songs or 3,500 movies.

"The devices would not only store vastly more information in the same space, but also require much less power and generate much less heat, and be practically unbreakable," IBM says. "The result: massive amounts of personal storage that could run on a single battery for weeks at a time and last for decades."

Today, information is generally stored either on flash memory or magnetic hard disk drives. Hard drives, with numerous moving parts, are slower than the solid state flash drives, but have the advantage of being about 100 times less expensive, IBM notes.

Racetrack memory combines the benefits of each type of storage, according to IBM, and will last much longer than flash memory, which slowly deteriorates each time data is rewritten and can break after several thousand reuses.

By storing data using the spin of electrons, racetrack memory can be rewritten endlessly without ever wearing out, IBM says.

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Jon Brodkin

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