Breaking the Speed Limits of Phase-Change Memory

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Science  22 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6088, pp. 1566-1569
DOI: 10.1126/science.1221561

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Exploiting Defects in a Jam

Phase-change materials that can readily switch between crystalline and amorphous states are increasingly finding use in nonvolatile memory devices (see the Perspective by Hewak and Gholipour). Using high-resolution transmission electron microscopy, Nam et al. (p. 1561) show that for Ge2Sb2Te5, the application of an electric field drives crystal dislocations in one direction, leading to their accumulation and eventual jamming, which causes the phase transition. Loke et al. (p. 1566) found that by applying a constant low voltage to Ge2Sb2Te5, they could accelerate its phase-switching speeds, without harming the long-term stability of the switched state.


Phase-change random-access memory (PCRAM) is one of the leading candidates for next-generation data-storage devices, but the trade-off between crystallization (writing) speed and amorphous-phase stability (data retention) presents a key challenge. We control the crystallization kinetics of a phase-change material by applying a constant low voltage via prestructural ordering (incubation) effects. A crystallization speed of 500 picoseconds was achieved, as well as high-speed reversible switching using 500-picosecond pulses. Ab initio molecular dynamics simulations reveal the phase-change kinetics in PCRAM devices and the structural origin of the incubation-assisted increase in crystallization speed. This paves the way for achieving a broadly applicable memory device, capable of nonvolatile operations beyond gigahertz data-transfer rates.

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