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Freescale unveils first military-temperature MRAMs

Posted: 20 Jun 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:magnetic RAMs? military-temperature MRAMs? flash memory?

Freescale Semiconducutor Inc. has announced the first Mil-spec extended-temperature-range magnetic RAMs (MRAMs), providing the last piece of the puzzle for the potential customers who have funded much of the memory category's development.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has poured millions into MRAM development programs since 1994. Freescale's MRAMs handle a temperatures of -40 to +105 degrees C to serve the military, avionics and space applications for which MRAMs were conceived.

"Extended temperature range and MRAM are like hand-in-glove" for such applications "because MRAM is immune to radiation and the soft errors it causes," said Jim Handy, director of market research firm Objective Analysis. "Radiation gets worse the higher an airplane flies and is a big problem in space but those applications also need the extended temperature range."

Next universal memory?
To expand its market and drive down costs, Freescale will also aim its extended-temperature offering at automotive electronics, where MRAMs could be used for such applications as self-configuring airbags.

For now, however, MRAM's main targets are military, avionics and space gear, commercial transportation, communications routers, servers and "anything that touches money," said Handy. "[By that], I mean financial transactions, communications servers that can't afford to go down, medical electronics and other applications where their high security saves money."

Freescale did not reveal its customers or shipment volumes. But it is promising a full line of parts by year's end to meet a full range of industrial, military and automotive electronics applications. Freescale plans nine family members this year: 1Mbit, 2Mbit and 4Mbit parts that will each come in commercial, industrial and extended temperature ranges.

"Today we are sampling our 4Mbit extended-temperature-range part and our 1Mbit commercial-temperature-range part," said David Bondurant, MRAM product manager at Freescale.

The company also plans to field MRAM options for its MCUs in 2008. "MRAM is a universal memory for microcontrollers, because it can store a program like flash or phase-change RAM," said Bondurant. "But MRAM can also store read/write data in the same memory, so it's much more flexible than flash."

The biggest question facing MRAM is whether enough design wins can be gained with military, avionics, commercial transportation and high-security applications to drive the price down to levels that automotive and other mass-market applications can swallow. Freescale announced that it would cut the price of its 4Mbit parts to $15 from the $25 quoted at introduction last year. But even the new price may be too high for automotive applications.

By contrast, 4Mbit battery-backed SRAM sells for about $5 today and 4Mbit flash memories sell for less $1 (plus the cost of a memory controller to load their values into RAM).

Chicken and egg
"It's the old chicken and egg: They need volume to drive costs down, but the memory business is extremely cost-driven, so the price has got to be low to get high volumes," said Handy.

MRAM densities are currently at the 4Mbit level, but since Freescale's MRAM is fabricated at the 180nm node today, it expects to scale to higher densities at more advanced nodes. MRAM's main competitor today is ferroelectric RAM, which is also at 4Mbit densities, by virtue of a 130nm process developed by Texas Instruments Inc. with Ramtron. MRAM does not compete directly with such other nonvolatiles as 1Gbit flash memories and 128Mbit PRAM, because their write times are slower and their erase cycles are not unlimited.

Newer alternatives that offer fast write and unlimited erase times include the nonvolatile SRAM being developed by Cypress Semiconductor Corp. and Simtek. But such technologies are less mature and more expensive today than MRAM.

- R. Colin Johnson
EE Times




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