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GaAs memory firm targets 2008 production

Fabless Canadian semiconductor firm Micromem is prototyping its MRAM GaAs memory device for medical, military and food irradiation applications.

GaAs memory company Micromem has embarked on a validation program that it hopes will secure its technology a market niche currently inaccessible to silicon.

Micromem believes that fabrication of a batch of prototype MRAM, or magnetoresistive random access memory, will provide adequate results to allow progress to the production stage of its four joint development agreements.

“Towards the end of the year, if we are on track, then we'll start to consummate where we're going with these four customers, in the military and commercial space,” said Steven Van Fleet, a director at Micromem.

“I think you'll see products within a year that will work in low density memory applications.”

Van Fleet holds responsibility for overseeing production of prototype MRAM at Global Communication Semiconductors' (GCS) Torrance, California, foundry and its subsequent testing. Extensive performance analysis will be performed at GCS, at Micromem's design partners Strategic Solutions, and at University of California, Berkeley.

“That will tell us that this product is going to be manufacturable, and more importantly work as designed, by the end of the year,” Van Fleet commented.

Silicon MRAM already exists commercially, which is based on magnetic tunneling junction technology. Freescale Semiconductor is its primary exponent, but Van Fleet says that issues such as leakage across the bits have forced some companies to back out of MRAM.

By contrast, van Fleet says Micromem s technology is extremely simple. The storage medium is a ferromagnetic bit that stores information as a magnetic field direction, which is then detected by an adjoining Hall cross sensor. “It s a very fundamental, kind of old-fashioned design that was overlooked,” Van Fleet commented.

The hardness to compete
GaAs ensures that this memory delivers reliable operation under the influence of radiation. This “radiation hardness”, which Micromem has already demonstrated, helped it to score its four development agreements.

Interested customers include companies looking to integrate MRAM s memory in devices used in the irradiation of food, medical devices and in phased array radar in satellites.

Micromem is also seeing military interest because this radiation hardness also comes with low power consumption while offering the same speed as competing silicon technologies. Thanks to this, GaAs MRAM can reduce the battery burden felt by soldiers.

Reliability and radiation hardness are therefore key attributes, so although Microsemi s device has a larger footprint than its silicon rivals this is a minor weakness.

Micromem was founded in a reverse takeover of a company called Pageant International in 1999. This is one of the more recent moves in a series of complicated transactions surrounding the patents on which Micromem is built.

“When Micromem first started there was the hope that one day we'd replace all the hard drives on IBM PCs and the like,” Van Fleet recalled.

Nowadays the company is ignoring the temptation to try and apply its memory wider than its current focus. “We re not trying to compete in the major retail market with four or five Gb type memory arrays,” said Van Fleet.

“I wish we could, but I think that if we can make it work in such applications as in healthcare and military, that's a great boon for us.”

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