A New Memory Company

Intel and STMicroelectronics have formed a joint venture that plans to commercialize phase-change memory.

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.

Next phase: This prototype phase-change memory chip has 128 megabits of capacity. Numonyx, a startup that combines memory technology from Intel and STMicroelectronics, will be manufacturing these chips later this year.

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.

Making memory: Phase-change memory devices are mass-produced on silicon wafers such as the one above.

In February, Intel and STMicroelectronics announced a new type of phase-change memory technology that doubles the storage capacity of each memory cell. Edward Dollar, chief technology officer of Numonyx, suspects that this improved phase-change memory, which has been transferred to Numonyx, could be ready to be mass-produced by the end of the decade. By doubling the capability of phase-change memory, he says, “it starts to become competitive” with the type of flash memory used in solid-state hard drives.

Samsung is also developing phase-change memory. But Numonyx is in a good position to lead the industry in phase-change memory, says Jim Handy, an analyst at Objective Analysis, a market research firm. “In phase-change memory, there’s really only a handful of companies who are dabbling in the technology,” he says.

Numonyx is funded by $150 million from the Francisco Partners investment firm, and it makes use of more than 2,500 issued patents; another 1,000 patents are pending from its parent companies.

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