Stuart Parkin’s digital storage research is part of the reason why the video stored on your cell phone works. It has also contributed to Google and Facebook’s ability to build giant data centers. The IBM researcher’s work on data storage has changed the way we use electronic devices. Now he’s about to do it again—this time, by soaring past Moore’s Law with a new kind of memory technology that’s 100 times faster and far more energy efficient than what we have now.
The technology is called racetrack memory, and eight or so years from now, it might be what’s storing data in your laptop or cell phone. Racetrack memory is more stable than flash (which is what Apple is rumored to be using for memory in the next generation of MacBooks), allows for long battery life, and stores unfathomable amounts of data.
Imagine: a nearly unbreakable smartphone that can store thousands of movies and lasts for weeks without needing to be recharged. In one fell swoop, racetrack memory could mitigate the problem of pricey devices constantly needing to be replaced and alleviate pressure on the power grid.
If that happens, we might have Parkin’s work on spintronics—a technology that uses an electron’s spin and "magnetic moment" in addition to its electric charge—to thank. In the case of magnetic memory, currents of spin-polarized electrons move magnetic data up and down a vertical racetrack (hence the name) on a silicon chip at a speed of hundreds of miles per hour. It’s this move into the third dimension (up and down) that allows racetrack memory to bypass Moore’s Law.
Ultimately, IBM hopes that racetrack memory devices can be wiped and rewritten millions of times. Flash drives often lose reliability after a bit undergoes 100,000 rewrites. It stand to reason, then, that devices using racetrack memory should last significantly longer than their flash counterparts.
The concept for racetrack memory has been around since 2008, but it was only in December 2011 that the IBM team unveiled the first fully functioning prototype on a single chip.
There is a ways to go before racetrack memory is commercialized, but in the meantime, we can look forward to seeing magnetic random access memory (MRAM)—a chip that operates using magnets instead of electricity—in electronics within the next two to three years. MRAM isn’t quite as worldchanging as racetrack memory, but it will mean that smartphones can last for days longer than they do now without needing to be charged.