In the era of iPods and smart phones, flash memory rules: it’s small and rugged, and it keeps getting cheaper. But on the heels of flash comes faster, even more robust technology called phase-change memory, which is just starting to come out of the lab. Now Numonyx, a joint venture that combines the flash and phase-change memory efforts of Intel and STMicroelectronics, has officially launched its operations. In doing so, the company has taken a leading spot in the burgeoning phase-change memory industry. By the end of this year, Numonyx expects to commercialize phase-change memory, and by the middle of the next decade, the company hopes to make it increase its storage capacity to render it competitive with flash as a solid-state drive replacement.
Phase-change memory, which uses a glassy material, stores information via a change in its physical state, rather than using electrical charges, as in flash. A tiny electrode heats each memory cell; the cell’s state depends on the manner in which it is heated, and it subsequently represents either a 1 or a 0.
At a press conference in San Francisco on Monday, Brian Harrison, CEO of Numonyx, said that phase-change memory has all the benefits of NOR and NAND flash technologies. (NOR is used in cell phones to execute code, and NAND has been used as a storage memory.) For instance, said Harrison, phase-change memory can have data read from it quickly like NOR flash, and data can be written to it as quickly as in NAND flash. In addition, phase-change memory doesn’t wear out, losing bits of data over time, as flash memory does.
In the near term, phase-change memory could replace the expensive and energy-consuming random access memory in cell phones, and in a few more years, it could potentially become a cost-effective alternative to flash. A customer who uses a phone with phase-change memory might notice extended battery life, said Harrison. “Intel and STMicroelectronics have been working [together] on phase-change memory for more than five years,” he said. “We have a product today that we are sampling, and expect to bring it to market this year. I believe it will be one to two years before it becomes widely available.”
Numonyx is made of the combined memory assets of Intel and STMicroelectronics, which include intellectual property, fabrication facilities, and employees. With the announcement, the company becomes the leading provider of NOR flash memory, and the third largest provider of nonvolatile memory (technology that retains data when the power supply is off), with a combined revenue of approximately $3 billion. It trails both Samsung and Toshiba in overall nonvolatile-memory market share.