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Intel outlines PRAM production plan

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Intel could begin punching out Flash-busting phase-change memory chips by the end of the year, the processor giant has announced. Its customers could get sample 128Mb chips as early as Q1 2008, it added.

Phase-change memory uses a material called chalcogenide glass to record data. Applying heat to the substance causes it to move between a crystalline state and an amorphous state. Since each state has very different electronic characteristics, they can be used to represent binary data that can be read electronically.

Crucially, once the chalcogenide's state has been changed, it stays that way, so the data isn't lost when the power's cut. Phase-change also has the potential to operate as quickly as regular RAM does, allowing it to replace not only Flash but also DRAM.

The idea isn't knew - discussions about the use of phase-change memory go back to the 1960s - but only recently have such devices become practical to make. Intel is working on the technology in partnership with STMicroelectronics, and showed off its 128Mb chip in September 2006. Around the same time, Samsung demo'd a proof-of-concept 512Mb part.

Many other semiconductor makers are also working on the technology, which is seen as a possible successor to today's Flash chips. Phase-change memory has the potential to achieve much greater storage densities - the volume of data that can be stored on a single chip - than Flash.

Speaking at an analysts conference this week, Ed Doller, CTO of Intel's Flash memory group, said the company's chip had already demonstrated a lifespan of 100m read-write cycles - a thousand times greater than Flash memory - and a data-retention time of ten years.

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