Page last updated at 18:20 GMT, Thursday, 10 April 2008 19:20 UK

IBM races to make hi-tech memory


Inside the spintronics chamber: IBM's Kevin Roche shows how he is designing an entirely new way of storing data.

Handheld gadgets storing thousands of hours of film footage could soon be a reality thanks to IBM scientists.

Researchers for the computer giant are working on a technology known as racetrack memory which uses tiny magnetic boundaries to store data.

In a paper in the journal Science, the team at IBM's Almaden lab in California outline ways to make the building blocks of the novel storage medium.

The capacity of MP3 players could increase 100 times from present levels.

But the IBM team say racetrack memory is still seven to eight years away from commercial use.

Memory boost

Currently most desktop computers use flash memory and hard drives to store data - both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Hard drives are cheap but their moving parts mean they are not very durable. They are also slow in that they typically take a few milliseconds to find and fetch data.

By contrast flash memory is more reliable and data can be read from it much faster though it has a finite lifespan and is expensive compared to hard drives.

The work being done on racetrack memory by Dr Parkin and colleagues could produce a storage medium that is cheap, durable and fast.

Ultimately, said Dr Parkin, racetrack memory could replace both flash and hard drives in computers and other gadgets.

"We have demonstrated the physics and materials underlying racetrack memory," said Dr Stuart Parkin, an IBM fellow at the Almaden laboratory.

"It's now possible to build a racetrack memory though we've not built one yet," he said.

The racetrack memory stores data in the boundaries, known as domain walls, between magnetic regions in nanowires.

The medium gets its name because the data races around the wire or track as it is read or written.

iPod nano, PA
Spintronics memory might mean devices that can hold 500,000 songs

The domain walls are read by exploiting the weak magnetic fields generated by the spin of electrons.

The tiny amounts of power needed to exploit these fields means racetrack memory generates far less heat than existing devices.

Many modern computers already use spintronics to improve the density of data on a hard drive.

In the paper in Science and an accompanying review, Dr Parkin, Masamitsu Hayashi and colleagues describe their progress towards making the building blocks of racetrack memory.

The team has been able to create, move and detect the tiny magnetic boundaries "properly timed, nanosecond long, spin-polarized current pulses" and have paved the way towards creating working racetrack memory systems.

The team has also shown how to fabricate the slim wires that would form the racetracks on which data is stored.

If the expected data densities of the technology are realised it could mean gadgets that have about 100 times more memory on board than is possible today. It would mean that a portable MP3 player could hold up to 500,000 songs.

"We are embarking on a path to build a prototype," said Dr Parkin. He said it could take up to four years to produce that prototype and a further three or four to refine it for commercial use.

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