So Long Flash, and Thanks for the Memory

Intel and STMicroelectronics have managed to produce a breakthrough in a new type of memory technology that could replace flash. Members of their joint venture Numonyx, which is trying to develop memory chips reliant on phase-change memory (PRAM) to store information, will present a paper today demonstrating how they’ve used it to double the amount of information they can store. It’s good news, but it still means it will cost twice as much to store the same amount of data on PRAM chips compared with the competing flash technology.

Phase-change memory relies on changes in temperature to store data; it competes with NOR flash, which is used to store the programs that run your VCR, set-top box and cell phone. The other type of flash, NAND, is used to store larger amounts of memory, such as the songs on an iPod.

Like all chips, memory follows Moore’s Law, which requires the space between transistors to get smaller. Kind of like doing the limbo, flash memory may not be able to go any lower. By allowing storage capacity to continue to expand while making chips ever smaller (and more cost-effective to produce), PRAM could provide the next breakthrough. However, although the breakthrough from Intel and STMicro puts PRAM at the same cost as NOR flash, it only stores half the data. So another breakthrough is still needed.