Beyond Binary: Phase-change Materials Could Fix Memory Crunch

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Duncan Graham-Rowe from New Scientist writes that new Phase Change Memory (PCM) materials that can hold multiple states at once could take digital information beyond just 1s and 0s. The technology, which is still in the laboratory at places like IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory in Switzerland, would enable multiple bits to be stored in a single cell.

The idea is simple: why use a single memory cell to store two binary states when it could hold many more? The technology relies upon phase change materials (PCMs) that can hold information by switching between an amorphous state and a crystalline one. PCM memory can write and retrieve data 100 times faster than Flash memory, which is used in many consumer gadgets and computers. It is also extremely durable and can be reused at least 10 million times; Flash can cope with just 3000 uses.

PCM technology is still a ways off, according to David Wright at the University of Exeter in the UK. Differentiating between distinct states requires highly sensitive and expensive equipment, which isn’t currently practical in a chip, he said.

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