IBM scientists unveiled a major breakthrough in their effort to build a new class of memory, nicknamed "racetrack." The racetrack memory would stand billions of nanowires around the edge of a chip, and potentially allow for hundreds of times the amount of storage in the same space as today’s memory. The expected benefits of racetrack memory over today’s memory technologies include operating at a greater speed, consuming much less power, and being practically indestructible, potentially unleashing applications that nobody has even imagined yet. Computer memory that combines the high performance and reliability of flash with the low cost and high capacity of the hard disk drive could be closer than you think, thanks to a team of IBM (NYSE: IBM) scientists.
In two papers published in the April 11 issue of Science, IBM Fellow Stuart Parkin and colleagues at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose describe both the fundamentals of a technology dubbed "racetrack" memory as well as a milestone in that technology. This milestone could lead to electronic devices capable of storing far more data in the same amount of space than is possible today, with lightning-fast boot times, far lower cost and unprecedented stability and durability.
Within the next ten years, racetrack memory, so named because the data "races" around the wire "track," could lead to solid state electronic devices – with no moving parts, and therefore more durable – capable of holding far more data in the same amount of space than is possible today. For example, this technology could enable a handheld device such as an mp3 player to store around 500,000 songs or around 3,500 movies – 100 times more than is possible today – with far lower cost and power consumption. 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; the result: 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 Dr. 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."
IBM is no stranger to creating entirely new markets that spring from exploratory research such as this. Just a few of the many game-changers invented at IBM Research include the memory chip, the hard disk drive and the relational database.
Currently, there are two main ways to store digital information: solid state random access flash memory, commonly used in devices such as mobile phones, music players and digital cameras, and the magnetic hard disk drive, commonly used in desktop and laptop computers and some handheld devices. While both classes of storage devices are evolving at a very rapid pace, the cost of storing a single data bit in a hard disk drive remains approximately 100 times cheaper than in flash memory. While the low cost of the hard disk drive is very attractive, these devices are intrinsically slower and, with many moving parts, have mechanical reliability issues not present in flash technologies.
Flash memory, however, has its own drawbacks – while it is fast to read data, it is slow to write data, and it, too, has a finite lifespan. Flash, can be reused only a few thousands of times because it eventually breaks because it is slightly damaged by each use or "rewrite."
Since racetrack memory has no moving parts, and, rather than storing data as ensemble of electronic charge, uses the "spin" of the electron to store data, it has no wear-out mechanism and so can be rewritten endlessly without any wear and tear.