TDK shows its first MRAM prototype, a competitor for flash memory

The memory chip technology is seen as a promising replacement for flash memory one day

A TDK MRAM chip is demonstrating alongside a flash memory chip at Ceatec Japan on October 8, 2014

A TDK MRAM chip is demonstrating alongside a flash memory chip at Ceatec Japan on October 8, 2014

Japan's TDK is showing for the first time its prototype of a new memory chip technology that is seen as a promising replacement for today's ubiquitous flash memory.

Spin-transfer torque MRAM has the advantage of being as fast at reading and writing data as short-term storage technologies like SRAM and DRAM, but as a non-volatile type of memory it can hold on to its contents for many years like flash memory.

MRAM (magnetoresistive random access memory) technology has been around for sometime, but the variant being developed by TDK is much newer. It stores data as a magnetic charge and gets its name from the spin-transfer torque effect, which harnesses the angular momentum of electrons to make magnetic field changes when writing data.

TDK has been working on STT-MRAM for several years but it has never demonstrated it in public until this week's Ceatec expo near Tokyo.

At the event, TDK is showing a prototype STT MRAM chip that is reading and writing data repeatedly alongside a NOR flash chip that is doing the same task.

On Wednesday, the MRAM unit was reading and writing data about seven times faster than the flash memory.

TDK was also displaying an 8-inch wafer of MRAM chips produced for testing purposes by Headway Technologies, a TDK-owned company in Milpitas, California. Headway doesn't have the ability to mass produce large numbers of memory chips, so TDK will have to find a chip-making partner when it is time to take the technology commercial.

There's still no estimate on when MRAM chips might make it big, but TDK said it could be 10 years until the technology is mature enough for mass production.

TDK isn't alone in trying to commercialize STT-MRAM chips.

Its chief competitor at present is Everspin Technologies, which is based in Chandler, Arizona.

Everspin has already begun shipping STT-MRAM in small quantities and it can be found in some products, including as the cache memory inside a solid-state disk drive from Buffalo Memory.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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