Spintronics At Work: IBM Outlines "racetrack" Memory

San Jose (CA) - IBM today pitched a completely new storage technology that could replace traditional hard drives and flash-based solid state disk drives (SSDs). IBM believes that spintronics-based storage devices that store data within a wiretrack could enable MP3 players with several terabytes of capacity and superfast access times.

Once in a while, we come across research projects that sound fantastic, but the promises made are just too good to be true. IBM's new vision of a "racetrack" memory looks like it may be such a project. At the very least, it sounds like science fiction right now - science fiction we hope we will be able to experience one day.

IBM said it has come up with the fundamentals of what is described as racetrack memory. IBM Fellow Stuart Parkin and his colleagues believe that the technology has the potential to replace traditional hard drives and SSDs sometime in the future. According to Parkin, this new type of memory will enable huge storage capacities and lightning-fast boot times at a far lower cost and unprecedented stability and durability that is availability in storage devices today.

Solid state storage devices based on racetrack memory - it received this name since stored data "races" around the wire "track" - could enable a handheld device such as an MP3 player to store around 500,000 songs or around 3500 movies - for less money and at lower power. IBM claims that the power consumption could be low enough to allow such mobile device to run on a single battery for weeks while the stored data would be protected from degradation for decades.

Too good to be true? Well, sort of. The approach departs from magnetic storage technologies as we know them today, but aims to take advantage of what is called spintronics, a term that often comes up in quantum computing. Rather than storing data with magnetic charges, spintronics utilize the spin of an electron for storing, accessing and reading data. At least to our knowledge, a commercialization of this technology is not yet in reach.

"It has been an exciting adventure to have been involved with research into metal spintronics since its inception almost 20 years ago with our work on spin-valve structures," said Parkin in a prepared statement "The combination of extraordinarily interesting physics and spintronic materials engineering, one atomic layer at a time, continues to be highly challenging and very rewarding. The promise of racetrack memory - for example, the ability to carry massive amounts of information in your pocket - could unleash creativity leading to devices and applications that nobody has imagined yet."

Parkin and his colleagues outlined their new memory idea in the paper "Current Controlled Magnetic Domain-Wall Nanowire Shift Register" that describes the basic concept of a magnetic shift register relying on the phenomenon of spin momentum transfer to move series of closely spaced domain walls - which the scientists claim is an entirely new take on the decades-old concept of storing information in movable domain walls. According to Parkin, obstacles in storing information in magnetic domain walls can be overcome by taking advantage of the interaction of spin polarized current with magnetization in the domain walls. The scientist said that this method results in a spin transfer torque on the domain wall, causing it to move.

Like flash memory, racetrack memory is envisioned to have no moving parts. Since it uses the "spin" of the electron to store data, IBM claims that it will not show any wear-out mechanism and data can be rewritten "endlessly without any wear and tear".

So, when will we see this memory in our computers and handhelds? Your guess is as good as ours. But IBM believes that racetrack memory could surface within a decade.