Friday, August 13, 2010

A new spin on memory technology

This week I received an 8GB microSD memory card that I'd ordered from China for the princely sum of about US$20.

It came in a simple bubble-wrap envelope carrying just a dollar's postage and the tiny black shard of plastic is smaller than my thumbnail.

Yet, amazingly, this tiny card can hold the equivalent of about four million A4 pages of text (a stack about 500m high).

If you look at the difference in data-density between that huge stack of paper and the memory card, the comparison is absolutely astonishing.

When I built my first memory card back in 1977, using discrete 128 byte (not K-bytes but BYTES) RAM chips, I simply could not have imagined how much smaller and cheaper this essential technology would get within the space of just over three decades.

And, if you think today's micro-memory cards are already small, get ready for the next step in miniaturising and improving memory technology: spintronics

Whereas today's memory relies on trapping electrical charges in insulated "wells", spintronics takes things down to a whole new level where the spin of individual electrons determines the state of a memory bit.

Through the use of this spintronics technology, the size and energy requirements of our memory should fall significantly while speed will actually increase.

Spintronics technology relies on the interaction of magentic fields and spinning electrons to do its magic and right now, researchers are experimenting to find the best combination of materials to use.

One of the first companies to try and commercialise this technology is Grandis, a company that presently holds a swathe of patents in the field of spintronics.

Exactly when (or even "if") we'll be able to buy memory devices based on this technology is unknown at this stage but, if it lives up to its promise, the dream of smaller, faster, more powerful computing will be taken to the next level.

Of course there are no guarantees that this cutting edge technology will make it to the starting line. I can't help but think back to an article I read in an issue of Byte magazine a little over 30 years ago which predicted a strong future for magnetic bubble memory.

Does anyone even remember that technology now?

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