TSMC helps develop next-generation memory technology

In a move that may lead to the development of cheaper memory that is able to store data without power, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC) has entered into an agreement to jointly research and develop magnetic RAM (MRAM) technology with the Electronics Research and Service Organization (ERSO) of the Taiwanese government-backed Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI).

MRAM is a non-volatile memory technology based on magnetoresistive materials that is currently under development by several leading chip makers, including IBM Corp. and Intel Corp. When it becomes commercially available, MRAM is expected to offer the ability to store large volumes of data without requiring power -- a feature that makes the memory technology attractive for use in mobile applications, such as cell phones and portable computers.

MRAM stores data by applying magnetic fields that cause magnetic materials to enter one of two magnetic states. By comparison, existing memory technologies, such as SRAM (static RAM) and DRAM (dynamic RAM), use an electric charge to store data.

Another benefit of MRAM is cost. While it is still too early to tell what kind of yield chip makers like TSMC will be able to get, MRAM will be produced using standard CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) technology like that used to make DRAM, making MRAM cheaper to produce than other non-volatile memory types, such as flash, which requires specialized CMOS technology.

"If the technology is mature then the yield will be high and the cost will be much lower," said Ming-Jinn Tsai, director of ITRI's Semiconductor Technology Division. "If the maturity of the technology is similar (to DRAM), the cost will be similar."

Initially expected to replace flash memory in some applications from the middle of the decade, MRAM also holds out the potential to replace SRAM and DRAM in many applications. "Most people predict that within 10 years it can compete with DRAM," Tsai said.

With the first MRAM chips expected to be commercially available in 2004, TSMC and ITRI expect to be about one year behind. The first MRAM products based on technology developed by the joint project -- which so far includes 10 engineers from ERSO and three from TSMC -- will likely hit the market in 2005, Tsai said.

Under the R&D agreement announced Thursday, ERSO will use Hsinchu, Taiwan-based TSMC's magnetic circuit design and product certification to develop process technologies for high-density MRAM in a bid to speed development of the technology in Taiwan, according to a joint statement issued Thursday.

Technology developed by the two partners will not be made available to other companies, Tsai said.

TSMC spokesman Richard Chung declined to comment further on what the agreement with ITRI means for TSMC or when the company expects the MRAM technology to become commercially available. "Maybe we will have something more to say at a later stage," he said.

One possible area where TSMC may be planning to use MRAM is in system-on-chip (SOC) products, Tsai said. SOCs incorporate several functions, such as a processor core and memory, on a single piece of silicon, reducing the number of chips and amount of power needed in a device, such as a mobile phone. Incorporating MRAM on an SOC would further reduce power consumption and costs compared with other memory types.

"Because (MRAM) is CMOS-compatible it is possible to embed the memory with other ICs (integrated circuits)," Tsai said.

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