The future of data storage is MRAM

Core Memory by teclasorg
Core Memory by teclasorg

We have been discussing NAND technology for quite awhile now but this month I ran across an article in IEEE Spectrum titled “a SPIN to REMEMBER – Spintronic memories to revolutionize data storage“. The article discussed a form of magneto-resistive random access memory or MRAM that uses quantum mechanical spin effects or spintronics to record data. We have talked about MRAM technology before and progress has been made since then.

Many in the industry will recall that current GMR (Giant Magneto-resistance) heads and TMR (Tunnel magneto-resistance) next generation disk read heads already make use of spintronics to detect magnetized bit values in disk media. GMR heads detect bit values on media by changing its electrical resistance.

Spintronics however can also be used to record data as well as read it. These capabilities are being exploited in MRAM technology which uses a ferro-magnetic material to record data in magnetic spin alignment – spin UP, means 0; spin down, means 1 (or vice versa).

The technologists claim that when MRAM reaches its full potential it could conceivably replace DRAM, SRAM, NAND, and hard disk drives or all current electrical and magnetic data storage. Some of MRAM’s advantages include unlimited write passes, fast reads and writes and data non-volatilility.

MRAM reminds me of old fashioned magnetic core memory (in photo above) which used magnetic polarity to record non-volatile data bits. Core was a memory mainstay in the early years of computing before the advent of semi-conductor devices like DRAM.

Back to future – MRAM

However, the problems with MRAM today are that it is low-density, takes lots of power and is very expensive. But technologists are working on all these problems with the view that the future of data storage will be MRAM. In fact, researchers at the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Electrical Engineering department have been having some success with reducing power requirements and increasing density.

As for data density NCSU researchers now believe they can record data in cells approximating 20 nm across, better than current bit patterned media which is the next generation disk recording media. However reading data out of such a small cell will prove to be difficult and may require a separate read head on top of each cell. The fact that all of this is created with normal silicon fabrication methods make doing so at least feasible but the added chip costs may be hard to justify.

Regarding high power, their most recent design records data by electronically controlling the magnetism of a cell. They are using dilute magnetic semiconductor material doped with gallium maganese which can hold spin value alignment (see the article for more information). They are also using a semiconductor p-n junction on top of the MRAM cell. Apparently at the p-n junction they can control the magnetization of the MRAM cells by applying -5 volts or removing this. Today the magnetization is temporary but they are also working on solutions for this as well.

NCSU researchers would be the first to admit that none of this is ready for prime time and they have yet to demonstrate in the lab a MRAM memory device with 20nm cells, but the feeling is it’s all just a matter of time and lot’s of research.

Fortunately, NCSU has lots of help. It seems Freescale, Honeywell, IBM, Toshiba and Micron are also looking into MRAM technology and its applications.


Let’s see, using electron spin alignment in a magnetic medium to record data bits, needs a read head to read out the spin values – couldn’t something like this be used in some sort of next generation disk drive that uses the ferromagnetic material as a recording medium. Hey, aren’t disks already using a ferromagnetic material for recording media? Could MRAM be fabricated/layed down as a form of magnetic disk media?? Maybe there’s life in disks yet….

What do you think?