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Altis' MRAM project gets French government backing

Posted: 11 Jul 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:altis semiconductor? magnetic random access memory? mram? dram?

Boosted by a $28.3 million financial windfall from the French and local governments, Altis Semiconductor reaffirmed expectations that it would be among the first companies to bring magnetic random access memory from the lab to full-scale production.

Altis, a 50-50 joint venture between IBM Microelectronics and Infineon Technologies AG, said the first installment of the French government's three-year subsidy will arrive in September. It will be used for a research center specifically designed to bring new devices such as MRAM to market. Altis plans to begin commercial production of MRAMs in 2005.

Proponents of the technology tout MRAM as the next-generation of memory, combining the best features of current memory technologies - including the high density of DRAM, the high speed of SRAM and the nonvolatility of flash memory. A key challenge is how fast and how economically manufacturers can master MRAM production using new materials and new process technologies.

Striving to become the European center for semiconductor development, French authorities see development and production of new memory devices such as MRAM as key. According to French Minister of Industry Nicole Fontaine, who visited Altis Semiconductor's fab, "Research, innovation, and quality are the essential axis of government politics."

Another ministry official, Christian Bechon, said the latest government investment in Altis does not necessarily mean that the government is betting all on MRAM. "Engineers at Altis are the ones who have to prove that the concept works at a price the market asks for," said Bechon.

Government money already underwrites a semiconductor R&D project in Crolles operated by partners STMicroelectronics, Philips and Motorola. Bechon said, "While Altis focuses on magneto-resistive technologies, Crolles can work on electrical resistance technologies. Let's see who will win." He added, "Either way, France will be the winner."

The MRAM project could have easily gone to the United States, according to Bechon, had the French government not acted.

Indeed, it's unlikely the MRAM project would have received a similar level of financial support from either Germany or the United States if IBM and Infineon had decided to locate in either country.

Elke Eckstein, who became the CEO of Altis on July 1, said, "The high performance and cost effective production of logic and memory at Altis, plus help from the French government authorities, are the factors that are unique. You'll never find that combination anywhere."

Altis has yet to start installing MRAM production equipment in this Paris suburb, near the campus of the University of Orsay, where the Giant Magneto Resistance effect was discovered. The company's plan is to start MRAM development by initially using a 0.18?m process technology.

Gerhard Mueller, Infineon's senior director for technology development used in memory products, said both Infineon and IBM already have "very good interaction with tool vendors [needed] to lay a good basis" for building up the infrastructure at Altis.

He said Altis engineers also have "established certain protocols" that determine which tools can be used by both standard CMOS and MRAM products. They are also looking at which tools cannot be shared and what equipment must be dedicated only to MRAM in order to prevent contamination of the manufacturing line.

The Altis team is familiar with the stringent protocols. They are already running two different device types on the same production line - one using copper and the other aluminum, according to Francis Taroni, CTO at Altis. The company declined to identify its tool vendors for MRAM process equipment.

The joint venture is promising to complete its MRAM technology demonstrator in 2004. The demonstrator will be based on a stand-alone MRAM rather than an embedded MRAM, according to Mueller. "With any new technology, you need to start with something that can be a vehicle to characterize the issues specific to the new technology."

He declined to discuss the density or interface in initial MRAM products as well as whether the device will be an embedded or standalone MRAM.

IBM and Infineon announced prototype MRAM arrays with a 128Kb core and containing what they claim is the smallest MRAM memory-cell size of 1.4?m?. The June announcement was made at the Symposium on VLSI Technology in Kyoto, Japan.

Motorola Inc., another MRAM developer, has been working on a 4Mb MRAM.

- Junko Yoshida

EE Times

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