Phase-change memory

Phase-change memory
Computer memory types

Phase-change memory (also known as PCME, PRAM, PCRAM, Ovonic Unified Memory, Chalcogenide RAM and C-RAM) is a type of non-volatile computer memory. PRAMs exploit the unique behavior of chalcogenide glass. Heat produced by the passage of an electric current switches this material between two states, crystalline and amorphous. Recent versions can achieve two additional distinct states, in effect doubling their storage capacity. PRAM is one of several new memory technologies competing in the non-volatile role with the almost universal flash memory. The latter technology has a number of practical problems that these replacements hope to address.



In the 1960s, Stanford R. Ovshinsky of Energy Conversion Devices first explored the properties of chalcogenide glasses as a potential memory technology. In 1969, Charles Sie published a dissertation,[1][2] at Iowa State University that both described and demonstrated the feasibility of a phase change memory device by integrating chalcogenide film with a diode array. A cinematographic study in 1970 established that the phase change memory mechanism in chalcogenide glass involves electric-field-induced crystalline filament growth.[3] In the September 1970 issue of Electronics, Gordon Moore — co-founder of Intel — published an article on the technology. However, material quality and power consumption issues prevented commercialization of the technology. More recently, interest and research have resumed as flash and DRAM memory technologies are expected to encounter scaling difficulties as chip lithography shrinks.[4]

The crystalline and amorphous states of chalcogenide glass have dramatically different electrical resistivity. The amorphous, high resistance state represents a binary 0, while the crystalline, low resistance state represents a 1. Chalcogenide is the same material used in re-writable optical media (such as CD-RW and DVD-RW). In those instances, the material's optical properties are manipulated, rather than its electrical resistivity, as chalcogenide's refractive index also changes with the state of the material.

Although PRAM has not yet reached the commercialization stage for consumer electronic devices, nearly all prototype devices make use of a chalcogenide alloy of germanium, antimony and tellurium (GeSbTe) called GST. The stoichiometry or Ge:Sb:Te element ratio is 2:2:5. When GST is heated to a high temperature (over 600°C), its chalcogenide crystallinity is lost. Once cooled, it is frozen into an amorphous glass-like state and its electrical resistance is high. By heating the chalcogenide to a temperature above its crystallization point, but below the melting point, it will transform into a crystalline state with a much lower resistance. The time to complete this phase transition is temperature-dependent. Cooler portions of the chalcogenide take longer to crystallize, and overheated portions may be remelted. A crystallization time scale on the order of 100 ns is commonly used.[5] This is longer than conventional volatile memory devices like modern DRAM, which have a switching time on the order of two nanoseconds. However, a January 2006 Samsung Electronics patent application indicates PRAM may achieve switching times as fast as five nanoseconds.

A more recent advance pioneered by Intel and ST Microelectronics allows the material state to be more carefully controlled, allowing it to be transformed into one of four distinct states; the previous amorphic or crystalline states, along with two new partially crystalline ones. Each of these states has different electrical properties that can be measured during reads, allowing a single cell to represent two bits, doubling memory density.[6]

A cross-section of two PRAM memory cells. One cell is in low resistance crystalline state, the other in high resistance amorphous state.

PRAM vs. Flash

It is the switching time and inherent scalability[7] that makes PRAM most appealing. PRAM's temperature sensitivity is perhaps its most notable drawback, one that may require changes in the production process of manufacturers incorporating the technology.

Flash memory works by modulating charge (electrons) stored within the gate of a MOS transistor. The gate is constructed with a special "stack" designed to trap charges (either on a floating gate or in insulator "traps"). The presence of charge within the gate shifts the transistor's threshold voltage, \,V_{th} higher or lower, corresponding to a 1 to 0, for instance. Changing the bit's state requires removing the accumulated charge, which demands a relatively large voltage to "suck" the electrons off the floating gate. This burst of voltage is provided by a charge pump, which takes some time to build up power. General write times for common Flash devices are on the order of 0.1ms (for a block of data), about 10,000 times the typical 10 ns read time, for SRAM for example (for a byte).

PRAM can offer much higher performance in applications where writing quickly is important, both because the memory element can be switched more quickly, and also because single bits may be changed to either 1 or 0 without needing to first erase an entire block of cells. PRAM's high performance, thousands of times quicker than conventional hard drives, makes it particularly interesting in nonvolatile memory roles that are currently performance-limited by memory access timing.

In addition, with Flash, each burst of voltage across the cell causes degradation. As the size of the cells decreases, damage from programming grows worse because the voltage necessary to program the device does not scale with the lithography. Most flash devices are rated for, currently, only 5,000 writes per sector, and many flash controllers perform wear leveling to spread writes across many physical sectors.

PRAM devices also degrade with use, for different reasons than Flash, but degrade much more slowly. A PRAM device may endure around 100 million write cycles.[8] PRAM lifetime is limited by mechanisms such as degradation due to GST thermal expansion during programming, metal (and other material) migration, and other mechanisms still unknown.

Flash parts can be programmed before being soldered on to a board, or even purchased pre-programmed. The contents of a PRAM, however, are lost because of the high temperatures needed to solder the device to a board (see reflow soldering or wave soldering). This is made worse by the recent drive to lead-free manufacturing requiring higher soldering temperatures. The manufacturer using PRAM parts must provide a mechanism to program the PRAM "in-system" after it has been soldered in place.

The special gates used in Flash memory "leak" charge (electrons) over time, causing corruption and loss of data. The resistivity of the memory element in PCM is more stable; at the normal working temperature of 85°C, it is projected to retain data for 300 years.[9]

By carefully modulating the amount of charge stored on the gate, Flash devices can store multiple (usually two) bits in each physical cell. In effect, this doubles the memory density, reducing cost. PRAM devices originally stored only a single bit in each cell, but Intel's recent advances have removed this problem.

Because Flash devices trap electrons to store information, they are susceptible to data corruption from radiation, making them unsuitable for many space and military applications. PRAM exhibits higher resistance to radiation.

PRAM cell selectors can use various devices: diodes, BJTs and MOSFETs. Using a diode or a BJT provides the greatest amount of current for a given cell size. However, the concern with using a diode stems from parasitic currents to neighboring cells, as well as a higher voltage requirement, resulting in higher power consumption. The chalcogenide resistance being a necessarily larger resistance than the diode entails that the operating voltage must exceed 1 V by a wide margin to guarantee adequate forward bias current from the diode. Perhaps the most severe consequence of using a diode-selected array, in particular for large arrays, is the total reverse bias leakage current from the unselected bit lines. In transistor-selected arrays, only the selected bit lines contribute reverse bias leakage current. The difference in leakage current is several orders of magnitude. A further concern with scaling below 40 nm is the effect of discrete dopants as the p-n junction width scales down.

2000 and later

In August 2004, Nanochip licensed PRAM technology for use in MEMS (micro-electric-mechanical-systems) probe storage devices. These devices are not solid state. Instead, a very small platter coated in chalcogenide is dragged beneath many (thousands or even millions) of electrical probes that can read and write the chalcogenide. Hewlett-Packard's micro-mover technology can accurately position the platter to 3 nm so densities of more than 1 Tbit (125 GB) per square inch will be possible if the technology can be perfected. The basic idea is to reduce the amount of wiring needed on-chip; instead of wiring every cell, the cells are placed closer together and read by current passing through the MEMS probes, acting like wires. This approach bears much resemblance to IBM's Millipede technology.

In September 2006, Samsung announced a prototype 512 Mb (64 MB) device using diode switches.[10] The announcement was something of a surprise, and it was especially notable for its fairly high density. The prototype featured a cell size of only 46.7 nm, smaller than commercial Flash devices available at the time. Although Flash devices of higher capacity were available (64 Gb, or 8 GB, was just coming to market), other technologies competing to replace Flash in general offered lower densities (larger cell sizes). The only production MRAM and FeRAM devices are only 4 Mb, for example. The high density of Samsung's prototype PRAM device suggested it could be a viable Flash competitor, and not limited to niche roles as other devices have been. PRAM appeared to be particularly attractive as a potential replacement for NOR Flash, where device capacities typically lag behind those of NAND Flash devices. (State-of-the-art capacities on NAND passed 512 Mb some time ago.) NOR Flash offers similar densities to Samsung's PRAM prototype and already offers bit addressability (unlike NAND where memory is accessed in banks of many bytes at a time).

Samsung's announcement was followed by one from Intel and STMicroelectronics, who demonstrated their own PCM devices at the 2006 Intel Developer Forum in October.[11] They showed a 128 Mb part that recently began manufacture at STMicroelectronics's research lab in Agrate, Italy. Intel stated that the devices were strictly proof-of-concept, but they expect to start sampling within months, and have widespread commercial production within a few years. Intel appears to be aiming their PCM products at the same market as Samsung.

PCM is also a promising technology in the military and aerospace industries where radiation effects make the use of standard non-volatile memories such as Flash impractical. PCM memory devices have been introduced by BAE Systems, referred to as C-RAM, claiming excellent radiation tolerance (rad-hard) and latchup immunity. In addition, BAE claims a write cycle endurance of 108, which will allow it to be a contender for replacing PROMs and EEPROMs in space systems.

In February 2008, Intel engineers, in cooperation with STMicroelectronics, revealed the first multilevel (MLC) PCM array prototype. The prototype stored two logical bits in each physical cell, in effect 256 Mb of memory stored in a 128 Mb physical array. This means that instead of the normal two states—fully amorphous and fully crystalline—an additional two distinct intermediate states represent different degrees of partial crystallization, allowing for twice as many bits to be stored in the same physical area on the chip.[6]

Also in February 2008, Intel and STMicroelectronics began shipping prototype samples of their first PCM product released to customers. The 90 nm, 128 Mb (16 MB) product is called Alverstone.[12]

In June 2009, Samsung and Numonyx B.V. announced a collaborative effort in the development of PCM market tailored hardware products that would revolutionise the memory industry in terms of design and efficient in production.[13]

In April 2010,[14] Numonyx announced the Omneo line of 128-Mbit NOR-compatible phase-change memories and Samsung announced shipment of it 512 Mb phase-change RAM (PRAM) in a multi-chip package (MCP) for use in mobile handsets by Fall 2010.

In June 2011,[15] IBM announced that they had created stable, reliable, multi-bit phase change memory with high performance and stability.


The greatest challenge for phase-change memory has been the requirement of high programming current density (>107 A/cm², compared to 105-106 A/cm² for a typical transistor or diode) in the active volume. This has led to active areas that are much smaller than the driving transistor area. The discrepancy has forced phase-change memory structures to package the heater and sometimes the phase-change material itself in sublithographic dimensions. This is a process cost disadvantage compared to Flash.

The contact between the hot phase-change region and the adjacent dielectric is another fundamental concern. The dielectric may begin to leak current at higher temperature, or may lose adhesion when expanding at a different rate from the phase-change material.

Phase-change memory is susceptible to a fundamental tradeoff of unintended vs. intended phase-change. This stems primarily from the fact that phase-change is a thermally driven process rather than an electronic process. Thermal conditions that allow for fast crystallization should not be too similar to standby conditions, e.g. room temperature. Otherwise data retention cannot be sustained. With the proper activation energy for crystallization it is possible to have fast crystallization at programming conditions while having very slow crystallization at normal conditions.

Probably the biggest challenge for phase change memory is its long-term resistance and threshold voltage drift.[16] The resistance of the amorphous state slowly increases according to a power law (~t0.1). This severely limits the ability for multilevel operation (a lower intermediate state would be confused with a higher intermediate state at a later time) and could also jeopardize standard two-state operation if the threshold voltage increases beyond the design value.

In April 2010, Numonyx released its Omneo[dead link] line of parallel and serial interface 128 Mb NOR-Flash replacement PCM chips. Although the NOR flash chips they intended to replace operated in the -40-85 °C range, the PCM chips operated in the 0-70°C range, indicating a smaller operating window compared to NOR flash. This is likely due to the use of highly temperature sensitive p-n junctions to provide the high currents needed for programming.


  • January 1955: Kolomiets and Gorunova revealed semiconducting properties of chalcogenide glasses.[17][18]
  • September 1966: Stanford Ovshinsky files first patent on phase change technology
  • January 1969: Charles H. Sie published a dissertation at Iowa State University on chalcogenide phase change memory device
  • June 1969: US Patent 3,448,302 (D. J. Shanefield) licensed to Ovshinsky claims first reliable operation of PCM device
  • September 1970: Gordon Moore publishes research in Electronics Magazine
  • June 1999: Ovonyx joint venture is formed to commercialize PRAM technology
  • November 1999: Lockheed Martin works with Ovonyx on PRAM for space applications
  • February 2000: Intel invests in Ovonyx, licenses technology
  • December 2000: ST Microelectronics licenses PRAM technology from Ovonyx
  • March 2002: Macronix files a patent application for transistor-less PRAM
  • July 2003: Samsung begins work on PRAM technology
  • 2003 through 2005: PRAM-related patent applications filed by Toshiba, Hitachi, Macronix, Renesas, Elpida, Sony, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, Infineon and more
  • August 2004: Nanochip licenses PRAM technology from Ovonyx for use in MEMS probe storage
  • August 2004: Samsung announces successful 64 Mbit PRAM array
  • February 2005: Elpida licenses PRAM technology from Ovonyx
  • September 2005: Samsung announces successful 256 Mbit PRAM array, touts 400 µA programming current
  • October 2005: Intel increases investment in Ovonyx
  • December 2005; Hitachi and Renesas announce 1.5 V PRAM with 100 µA programming current
  • December 2005: Samsung licenses PRAM technology from Ovonyx
  • July 2006: BAE Systems begins selling the first commercial PRAM, a Radiation Hardened C-RAM 512Kx8 chip
  • September 2006: Samsung announces 512 Mbit PRAM device
  • October 2006: Intel and STMicroelectronics show a 128 Mbit PRAM chip
  • December 2006: IBM Research Labs demonstrate a prototype 3 by 20 nanometers[19]
  • January 2007: Qimonda licenses PRAM technology from Ovonyx
  • April 2007: Intel's chief technology officer Justin Rattner is set to give the first public demonstration of the company's PRAM (phase-change RAM) technology [20]
  • October 2007: Hynix begins pursuing PRAM by licensing Ovonyx' technology
  • February 2008: Intel and STMicroelectronics announce four-state MLC PRAM[6] and begin shipping samples to customers.[12]
  • December 2008: Numonyx announces mass production 128 Mbit PCM device to selected customer.
  • June 2009: Samsung's phase change RAM will go into mass production starting in June[21]
  • September 2009: Samsung announces mass production start of 512 Mbit PRAM device[22]
  • October 2009: Intel and Numonyx announce they have found a way to stack phase change memory arrays on one die[23]
  • December 2009: Numonyx announces 1 Gb 45 nm product[24]
  • April 2010: Numonyx releases Omneo PCM Series (P8P and P5Q), both in 90 nm.[25]
  • April 2010: Samsung releases 512Mbit PCM with 65 nm process, in Multi-Chip-Package.[26]


  1. ^ "Memory Devices Using Bistable Resistivity in Amorphous As-Te-Ge Films" C. H. Sie, PhD dissertation, Iowa State University, Proquest/UMI publication #69-20670, January 1969
  2. ^ "Chalcogenide Glass Bistable Resistivity Memory" C.H. Sie, A.V. Pohm, P. Uttecht, A. Kao and R. Agrawal, IEEE, MAG-6, 592, September 1970
  3. ^ "Electric-Field Induced Filament Formation in As-Te-Ge Semiconductor" C.H. Sie, R. Uttecht, H. Stevenson, J. D. Griener and K. Raghavan , Journal of Non-Crystalline Solids, 2, 358-370,1970
  4. ^ "Is NAND flash memory a dying technology?". Techworld. Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  5. ^ H. Horii et al.,2003 Symposium on VLSI Technology, 177-178 (2003).
  6. ^ a b c A Memory Breakthrough, Kate Greene, Technology Review, 04-Feb-2008
  7. ^ [1], Toward the Ultimate Limit of Phase Change in Ge2Sb2Te5
  8. ^ Intel to Sample Phase Change Memory This Year
  9. ^ Pirovano, A. Redaelli, A. Pellizzer, F. Ottogalli, F. Tosi, M. Ielmini, D. Lacaita, A.L. Bez, R. Reliability study of phase-change nonvolatile memories. IEEE Transactions on Device and Materials Reliability. Sept. 2004, vol 4, issue 3, pp. 422–427. ISSN 1530-4388.
  10. ^ SAMSUNG Introduces the Next Generation of Nonvolatile Memory - PRAM
  11. ^ Intel Previews Potential Replacement for Flash
  12. ^ a b "Intel, STMicroelectronics Deliver Industry's First Phase Change Memory Prototypes". Numonyx. 2008-02-06. Archived from the original on 2008-06-09. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  13. ^ "Samsung Electronics and Numonyx Join Forces on Phase Change Memory". Samsung. 2009-06-23.;articleID=1023. 
  14. ^ "Samsung to ship MCP with phase-change". EE Times. 2010-04-28.;jsessionid=AZ0IF3RVEBPQVQE1GHPSKHWATMY32JVN?articleID=224700051. Retrieved 2010-05-03. 
  15. ^ "IBM develops 'instantaneous' memory, 100x faster than flash". engadget. 2011-06-30. Retrieved 2011-06-30. 
  16. ^ D. Ielmini et al., IEEE Trans. Electron Dev. vol. 54, 308-315 (2007).
  17. ^ Physica Status Solidi, vol.7, p.359, 1964.
  18. ^ Physica Status Solidi, vol.7, p.713, 1964.
  19. ^ Phase Change to Replace Flash?
  20. ^ - Intel set for first public demo of PRAM
  21. ^ Engadget Samsung PRAM chips go into mass production
  22. ^ Samsung moves phase-change memory to production
  23. ^ Intel and Numonyx Achieve Research Milestone with Stacked, Cross Point Phase Change Memory Technology
  24. ^ Numonyx to Present Phase Change Memory Research Results at Leading Technology Industry Conference
  25. ^ Numonyx new PCM devices
  26. ^ Samsung Ships Industry’s First MCP with a PRAM chip for handsets

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