Billions of microscopic cells on a single chip will soon add eight gigabytes of nonvolatile memory to smartphones and other devices, creating new possibilities for mobile applications and potentially lowering prices in the long term. IM Flash Technologies, a joint venture between chipmakers Intel and Micron Technology, on Monday unveiled a 64-gigabit NAND flash die based on 25-nanometer process technology.
The new process doubles the density of the partnership's previous milestone creation, a 32-gigabit die based on 34-nanometer technology. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.
IMFT is currently market-testing the new chips with production expected in the second half of this year. About the size of a postage stamp, each die contains a memory array with more than 32 billion cells, each of which is only 25 nanometers wide.
"The smaller we make the storage cell, the more we can get into a die and the more capacity you as an end user will see," said Kevin Killbuck, director of NAND market development for Micron, in a video posted on the company's web site. He said the 8GB capacity is about the same as 11 CDs, enough to hold thousands of songs and photos and hours of video.
Killbuck said the technology will allow devices like flash memory cards and MP3 players to double their capacity while remaining the same size and consuming the same amount of power.
The new technology meets a growing demand for high density and low cost that has fueled the spread of cheap flash drives and other portable storage devices.
"More advanced manufacturing processes are bringing about computing functionality in a smaller package," said Jeff Orr, senior analyst for mobile devices at ABI Research. "Smaller semiconductors allow for smaller device form factors by using less space on the system board, and they generally consume less power."
Because the new chip designed by IMFT would be the world's densest flash memory, it would reduce by as much as half the amount of chips that need to be installed in solid-state devices, which may make them more affordable.
But don't look for cheaper phones or MP3 players in the near future, Orr said, because newer technologies generally take longer to fabricate and will reach consumers gradually.
"As more components migrate to the newer processes, fabs are generally able to run longer and yield more," Orr said. Fabs are the manufacturing plants that make semiconductors.
"The trickle-down effect this has for consumers may not be felt in device costs for one to three years, depending on the component and its respective volumes," he said. "Semiconductor companies that continue to innovate on manufacturing processes could find a source of significant component differentiation in ever-increasingly competitive technology markets."
Micron said the 25-nanometer process is not only the smallest NAND technology, it's also the smallest semiconductor technology in the world.
"To lead the entire semiconductor industry with the most advanced process technology is a phenomenal feat for Intel and Micron, and we look forward to further pushing the scaling limits," said Brian Shirley, vice president of Micron's memory group. "This production technology will enable significant benefits to our customers through higher-density media solutions."
High-capacity NAND technology, first introduced by Toshiba in 1989, is widely used in digital cameras, USB flash drives, and MP3 players, and is faster than another flash memory technology, NOR.
IMFT boasts that it has been doubling the density of its technology every 18 months since 2006, when it developed a 50-nanometer process, followed by the 34-nanometer process in 2008, and the 25-nanometer process this year.