When Freescale Semiconductor rolled out its new 4-Mbit magnetoresistive random access memory (MRAM) chip earlier this year, it signaled the beginning of a new era for the memory market. MRAM, after all, uses magnetic polarization, rather than electric charge, to store bits of information.
The real importance of that change, however, goes far beyond the methodology of the storage. MRAM offers a multitude of practical advantages over today's memory schemes, including the ability to retain data when turned off; ability to reduce system power; better performance in write-speed and endurance; lower energy consumption during the write cycle and exceptional reliability.
"It changes the way an entire (electronic) system works," says David Bondurant, MRAM product manager for Freescale. "Today, we have a hierarchy of Flash, EEPROM and SRAM on a chip. With MRAM, you can replace all that and still have the flexibility to juggle the partitioning of the memory in different ways."
Freescale's product, known as the MR2A16A, has the potential to be downright disruptive for the electronics industry. In industrial environments, for example, it has the ability to replace disk drives in some applications. Because it allows users to store data at the processor, it eliminates the need for back-up in certain situations.
"Critical data can be written quickly and the user doesn't have to take any special action when the power goes off," Bondurant says. "The data just stays there."
It could also serve as an adjunct to, or a replacement for, SRAM and Flash in some applications. Moreover, its reliability is considered to be appealing for the aerospace and military markets.
Freescale engineers with a watchful eye on the future have also taken to calling MRAM "the silicon that thinks." Unlike Flash, which tends to be written to once and occasionally updated during field maintenance, MRAM can be updated constantly. That's why some are seeing MRAM as a pre-cursor to self-adaptive chips, which could allow for changing and adapting of programs over time.
"With MRAM, we can write and store all the time, anytime," Bondurant says. "It doesn't wear out and it doesn't take a lot of power to charge it."