3-D chip design promises 10-fold drop in memory cost

A U.S.-based startup says it will introduce next year a single-use memory chip that will be up to 10 times cheaper to produce than existing memory types.

Officials at Matrix Semiconductor Inc. said the company's Matrix 3-D Memory is a single-use chip -- a chip which permits a user to store data that cannot be subsequently erased -- which will next year find its way into a variety of consumer devices, such as digital cameras, MP3 players, PDAs (personal digital assistants) and mobile phones, Matrix said.

The company also sees applications for the chips in prerecorded content, such as music, electronic books, maps and reference guides.

The key benefit of the new memory chips is their low cost. Matrix officials expect to be able to produce Matrix 3-D Memory chips at one-tenth the cost of other types of memory by using 3-D chip design technology.

Matrix 3-D Memory chips are expected to be so cheap that consumers will be able to afford to use them once, as with blank CD-R (CD-recordable) media or camera film, the company said in a statement. When they go on sale, a single 64M-byte memory card -- able to hold up to two hours of MP3 audio files or 65 3.3-megapixel images -- is expected to cost around the same price as a roll of 35-millimeter film, it said, or between US$3 and $10.

The technical advance is the 3-D chip design, which reduces production costs by increasing the density of transistors on a chip by stacking them in layers, rather than only spreading them outwards horizontally, as is currently done in chip design. The reduction that occurs in the area of the chip allows more chips to be produced on a single silicon wafer and results in a corresponding decrease in cost.

The memory chips may also cause a decrease in some device prices. The company estimates that a digital audio player bundled with Matrix 3-D Memory could cost up to $50 less than a comparable device based on flash memory.

Matrix 3-D Memory chips are hardware compatible with NAND-type flash memory, the type of memory used in most memory cards, and can be packaged in existing flash card formats, including CompactFlash, SmartMedia, Memory Stick and SD Card, among others, the company said. This will allow the chips to be used in any device or computer that offers supports for these formats.

In addition to memory cards, Matrix has also begun to look at using the chips for code storage in PDAs and cell phones.

The chips will be made in Taiwan by contract chip maker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. using existing chipmaking technology, the company said.

Cheaper memory may just be the beginning if Matrix is able to deliver on its promises. Looking ahead, the company intends to develop additional types of chips using 3-D design technology.

Matrix has received financial backing for the development from Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp., Eastman Kodak Co. and Thomson Multimedia SA.

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