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Flash memory looks set to get cheaper and more reliable if a new manufacturing technique developed by Lucent takes off.

At the moment, Flash memory works kind of like a bathtub. I know, it sounded strange to us too, but that is what the boffins at Lucent's new spin off, Agere Systems, are using as a teaching example.

We'll hand over to them:

"The electrical charge that represents the bit of data typically remains in the tub, but if the tub springs a leak, that charge is lost," Jan De Blauwe, a researcher at Agere Systems explained at this year's International Electron Devices Meeting. "As we try to shrink the size of these conventional tublike cells to make the memory chip smaller, the chance that they'll develop leaks increases."

Solutions to the problem do exist, but tend to be expensive or run at higher voltages than most chips do today.

The researchers found a way to break up each memory cell into 20,000 to 40,000 smaller cells, or, in keeping with the bathtub theme, "buckets". This means that even a if a fair number of buckets spring a leak, most of htem will remain watertight, or in this case charge tight, and no data will be lost.

The researchers formed the tiny cells by spraying silicon nanocrystals through high-temperature oxygen gas. The silicon droplets develop a shell of silicon dioxide capable of reliably storing electrical charge. They are cheaper and easier to make that conventional memory cells, and could lead to lower operating voltages, the researchers said.

You might ask - when are we going to see this stuff on sale? Here's what Lucent has to say about that: "While these research results are promising, it is premature to predict if or when the technology will be commercially implemented." ®

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