Infineon and IBM have demonstrated a prototype 16MB magnetic RAM chip, bringing the power-saving technology one step closer to commercial availability.

(See also our feature on Phase-Change Memory.)

MRAM is a non-volatile memory technology that can store information for an extended period of time without power. The technology is seen as a future replacement for flash memory, another type of non-volatile memory, in mobile applications, such as cell phones, and could even supplant volatile DRAM (dynamic RAM) in PCs further down the road.

Made using magnetoresistive materials, MRAM stores data by applying a magnetic field that causes memory cells to enter one of two magnetic states. By comparison, existing memory technologies, such as flash, SRAM (synchronous RAM) and DRAM, use an electric charge to store data.

Besides its non-volatile characteristics, another attractive feature of MRAM is cost. Unlike flash memory, which requires a specialized CMOS process to manufacture, MRAM chips can be produced using standard CMOS processes. This could make MRAM cheaper to manufacture if yield rates - the percentage of working chips produced on a single silicon wafer - are high.

MRAM is expected to be used first in mobile applications as a replacement for flash. At some point in the future, MRAM could also replace SRAM and DRAM, which is cheap to manufacture but is slower than MRAM and requires a constant power supply to retain stored data. Using MRAM instead of DRAM in notebooks PCs could help extend battery life, according to Infineon and IBM.

The two companies have been working together to develop MRAM chips since 2000 and the technology could be available within a few years.