- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

DALLAS (AP) — Achieving a long-sought goal of the $48 billion memory chip industry, Freescale Semiconductor Inc. announces today the commercial availability of a chip that combines traditional memory’s endurance with a hard drive’s ability to keep data while powered down.

The chips, called magnetoresistive random-access memory, or MRAM, maintain information by relying on magnetism rather than an electrical charge. Unlike flash memory, which also can keep data without power, MRAM is fast to read and write bits, and doesn’t degrade over time.

Freescale, which was spun off from Motorola Inc. in July 2004, said it has been producing the 4-megabit MRAM chips at an Arizona factory for two months to build inventory. Chip makers including IBM Corp. have been pursuing the technology for a decade or more.

MRAM, sometimes called “universal” memory, could displace chips found in every electronic device, from personal computers, cell phones, music players and cameras to the computing components of kitchen appliances, cars and airplanes.

“This is the most significant memory introduction in this decade,” said Will Strauss, an analyst with research firm Forward Concepts. “This is radically new technology. People have been dabbling in this for years, but nobody has been able to make it in volume.”

Electronic memory is ubiquitous, but memory-chip technology varies in strengths and weaknesses. A single device often contains multiple types of memory chips to take advantage of the benefits of a particular technology.

Static and dynamic random access memory chips, used in PCs, are fast but lose data when the power is switched off. Flash memory chips — commonly found in music players, cameras and cell phones — retain information but are slower and degrade over time.

Bob Merritt, an analyst with Semico Research, said memory makers are hunting technology that will be faster, smaller, cheaper and retain data when the power is off to help run portable computers and cell phones.

“The older memory technologies are awkward to work with in a mobile computing environment,” Mr. Merritt said. “This is a significant step forward and absolutely critical for moving into the smaller forms that consumers and industry want.”

Freescale has been working on the technology for nearly a decade, said Saied Tehrani, who directs the Austin, Texas, company’s MRAM program. He said Freescale already has customers but declined to name any.

Freescale said it isn’t interested in high-volume markets but will license its patents to other companies.

The first markets for MRAM chips are likely to be in automotive and industrial settings, where durability is critical. Mr. Tehrani said they also would be suited for data-logging devices, such as airline black boxes that store data on aircraft performance and must be recoverable after a crash.

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