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IBM probe nanometer-scale memories

Posted: 24 May 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:John Walko? IBM? pro-based storage? Millipede Project?

IBM has taken the wraps off a groundbreaking project to develop terabit memories based on MEMS technology and referred to as "probe-based storage." The next step is deciding whether to move development to the next phase.

Probe-based storage, formerly known at IBM as the "Millipede Project," remains a high priority at the IBM research facility. It "is part of our efforts into nanotechnology, but at this stage we only have prototypes," Paul Seidler, manager of the science and technology group at IBM Zurich Research Laboratory, told EE Times.

"While we have working parts and have demonstrated complete data storage systems, there are still technical issues to solve, and the company has made no commitments to a product," Seidler added. "In any case, our role here is to prove that the proof of principle works, [and] it does."

The "millipede" chip uses scaled-down MEMS techniques to physically locate and melt holes in a polymer atop a movable silicon substrate. Bit locations are addressed by moving the substrate under the desired read/write head, which is then heated. Static tension causes the head to melt the polymer, making a hole, which can then be read later by the same head when it is not heated.

Core components of the probe storage system are a two-dimensional array of silicon probes (cantilevers) and a micromechanical scanner that moves the storage medium relative to the array. The probes are precisely located above the storage medium to ensure that external vibrations are absorbed.

The most recent array design consists of an array of 64-by-64 cantilevers on a 100m pitch. The 6.4-by-6.4mm2 array is fabricated on a 10-by-10mm2 silicon chip using a "transfer and join" technique that allows the direct interconnection of the cantilevers with CMOS electronics used to control the cantilevers.

In such an array, and with cantilevers about 70m long, IBM researchers suggested the system could be used to write data at densities greater than 1Tbit per inch2. "We have shown in experiments that this could be increased to nearer 3Tbits per inch2," said Seidler.

IBM demonstrated a prototype of the storage device at last year's CeBIT fair where IBM touted the technology as a potential replacement for magnetic recording on hard drives. It may also have potential as a nonvolatile storage medium in a range of mobile products, including MP3 players, digital cameras and cellphones. The prototype achieved storage and retrieval of data at densities of up to 517Gbit per inch2.

- John Walko
EE Times

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