Intel’s Numonyx closes in on potential flash successor PCM

Santa Clara (CA) – Numonyx, a joint venture created by Intel and ST Microelectronics in 2008, said it has entered a license agreement with Ovonyx. The license enables Numonyx to access Ovonyx patents that affect Phase Change Memory (PCM) technology, which is generally considered to be a front runner in the race to succeed flash memory.

Flash memory has lasted much longer than it was predicted even just five years ago. The technology still scales well and the economics behind flash are still reason for chip manufacturers to pursue opportunities especially in the NAND field – the flash type that is generally used for memory cards and SSDs. However, it is no secret that flash will run into a barrier where scaling will get too expensive and a switch-over to a new technology will be necessary.

It isn’t clear which technology this may be, over the years we have heard about MRAM, PRAM or OUM, but it appears that there is a certain consensus that PCM is the technology with the best chance to succeed flash. Numonyx is among the companies developing PCM and the company today followed rivals, including Elpida, in licensing technology from Ovonyx.

“While PCM represents a significant opportunity to extend the benefits of non-volatile memory to segments currently served by flash memory, it also opens new opportunities in areas current memory technologies aren’t able to go,” said Ed Doller, chief technology officer at Numonyx, in a prepared statement. “We are very optimistic about its future and believe that with the support from Ovonyx we will continue to expand the capabilities of PCM technology.”

Ovonyx’ research and patents are focused on ovonics unified memory (OUM), one of the potential flash successor technologies that had been considered by Intel as potential flash successors until 2003. OUM is based on chalcogenide alloys that are also used in optical memory disks such as CD R/W,  DVD-RAM or DVD-R/W. PCM uses the characteristics of chalcogenide glass, switching the state of the material between crystalline and amorphous through heat. The change of state results in a change of its electrical resistivity and is the underlying concept of storing data with this technology.

In early 2008, Intel unveiled a PCM chip code-named “Alverstone”, which featured a 256 Mb multi-level (2 bit) cell structure manufactured in 90 nm.
It is interesting to note that Intel was the first company to manufacture flash memory. Back in 1989, the 256 KB NOR flash device (a flash type that is used in read-heavy chips such as for storing operating systems), was the size of a shoe box. Intel contributed all of its NOR flash assets to the creation of Numonyx.