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Company Seeks to Add MRAM to Tags

Micromem has developed a new memory technology for RFID. Now, the company wants a partner to help commercialize it.
By Jonathan Collins
Mar 24, 2005A new memory technology currently being developed will make RFID chips that are faster to read and write to, more robust and cheaper, according to Micromem Technologies. For the past five years, Micromem has been working on a version of magnetoresistive (or magnetic) random access memory (MRAM) for RFID tags. Now, the company is seeking a partner to help commercialize the technology.

"We are looking to select a joint-development partner by the end of 2005. Commercial products should follow 18 months after that," says Cynthia Kuper, the CTO at Toronto-based Micromem. The company explains that it will look to join forces with a chip design and manufacturing company or an RFID equipment developer to help bring the technology out of the lab and into the commercial RFID market.

Cynthia Kuper
"We have an MRAM design that is extremely robust and easy to integrate into the RFID chips," says Steven Van Fleet, senior RFID advisor at Micromem.

Although MRAM is primarily a technology still in development, chips using a form of MRAM called ferroelectric random access memory (FRAM) are available. Fujitsu Microelectronics ,for example, has been marketing memory based on FRAM since 1999 and currently has a 1-megabit FRAM chip for use in such things as printers, copy machines, PDAs, and microwave ovens, washing machines and other home appliances. FRAM chips function fine in these applications, according to Micromem, but they suffer from problems inherent in their data-storage mechanism, which limits their useable life. For its part, Micromem maintains its MRAM design has no such problems.

By using a material's magnetic properties to store and process information instead of relying on a material's electronic properties, MRAM promises to provide a faster nonvolatile memory (memory that retains its information when the power is shut off) than existing EEPROM and flash nonvolatile memory. MRAM is also a denser memory type, which means that an MRAM chip can offer a higher amount of storage capacity for its size than can chips using other existing memory technologies.

Both EEPROM and flash memory can be vulnerable to the effects of X-rays and other forms of radiation that can breakdown the material they are composed of, causing memory devices to malfunction. Radiation-hardened materials such as those used in Micromem's MRAM design can stand up to extreme exposures of radiation without breaking down and without the device malfunctioning, says Micromem. MRAM will not withstand a high magnetic pulse, according to Micromem, but then again no memory device can. The company says that immunity to X-rays will give its MRAM chips an advantage in defense, space and homeland security applications, such as airport baggage scanning, where tags have to withstand passing through X-ray machines.

"There are already yield issues with tags being used in airport baggage because current tags don't have the radiation hardening that Micromem's MRAM technology will offer," says Van Fleet.

Although its design will deliver greater resilience to radiation, Micromem says its technology will also prove valuable to all RFID users and tag manufacturers because it can be produced far less expensively than existing chip memory. However, the company says it is too early to estimate how much cheaper chips built using its designs will be. In addition to reducing the cost of a basic chip, MRAM's lower cost could make it possible to put more memory on tags. Plus, the company believes, the faster write times achieved by its chip memory will speed up the encoding of tags, further driving down the cost of producing and using RFID tags.

So far Micromem says it has developed a 1-bit prototype of its technology. The next stage is to expand that into a memory array.
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Maria Cozzolino 2005-03-24 10:48:55 PM
FRAM is not a form of MRAM the phrase from the article, "a form of MRAM called ferroelectric random access memory (FRAM)" -- is confused or ignorant at best, possibly misleading or deceptive at worst. Or could it be a typo? The "ferro" in ferroelectric physics refers only to the open hysteresis-loop that describes the two-way voltage-vs-storage curve so familiar to students of magnetism. There is no iron, and no magnetism, involved with FRAM. MRAM and FRAM are related only in that they are both forms of nonvolatile memory. FRAM has long ago proven is fundamental capabilities for fast-writable RFID, first by Ramtron's spin-off Racom in the early '90s, and deployed by manufacturers such as Honeywell. Of late, FRAM is finding places in automotive gear. See www.ramtron.com, of which Fujitsu is one of several licensees, for the authentic skinny on the state of FRAM art.

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