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TR10: Racetrack Memory

Stuart Parkin is using nanowires to create an ultradense memory chip.

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When IBM sold its hard-drive business to Hitachi in April 2002, IBM fellow Stuart Parkin wondered what to do next. He had spent his career studying the fundamental physics of magnetic materials, making a series of discoveries that gave hard-disk drives thousands of times more storage capacity. So Parkin set out to develop an entirely new way to store information: a memory chip with the huge storage capacity of a magnetic hard drive, the durability of electronic flash memory, and speed superior to both. He dubbed the new technology "racetrack memory."

Both magnetic disk drives and existing solid-state memory technologies are essentially two-dimensional, Parkin says, relying on a single layer of either magnetic bits or transistors. "Both of these technologies have evolved over the last 50 years, but they've done it by scaling the devices smaller and smaller or developing new means of accessing bits," he says. Parki­n sees both technologies reaching their size limits in the coming decades. "Our idea is totally different from any memory that's ever been made," he says, "because it's three-dimensional."

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The key is an array of U-shaped magnetic nanowires, arranged vertically like trees in a forest. The nanowires have regions with different magnetic polarities, and the boundaries between the regions represent 1s or 0s, depending on the polarities of the regions on either side. When a spin-polarized current (one in which the electrons' quantum-mechanica­l "spin" is oriented in a specific direction) passes through the nanowire, the whole magnetic pattern is effectively pushed along, like cars speeding down a racetrack. At the base of the U, the magnetic boundaries encounter a pair of tiny devices that read and write the data.

Video

Speeding bits: In one implementation of racetrack memory, information is stored on a U-shaped nanowire as a pattern of magnetic regions with different polarities. Applying a spin-polarized current causes the magnetic pattern to speed along the nanowire; the data can be moved in either direction, depending on the direction of the current. A separate nanowire perpendicular to the U-shaped "racetrack" writes data by changing the polarity of the magnetic regions. A second device at the base of the track reads the data. Data can be written and read in less than a nanosecond. Racetrack memory using hundreds of millions of nanowires would have the potential to store vast amounts of data.

Credit: Arthur Mount; source: IBM

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Kate Greene

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I’m a freelance science and technology journalist based in San Francisco. I was the information technology editor at MIT’s Technology Review from 2005 to 2009, where I wrote...
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