A microcontroller (MCU) is a small computer built on a single integrated circuit that contains a processor core, memory and programmable input/output peripherals.
As Rambus Labs VP Gary Bronner points out, there are currently dozens of semiconductor companies rolling out both 8-bit and 32-bit MCUs. The biggest challenge for manufacturers, he says, is successfully differentiating one microcontroller from another.
“Resistive random-access memory (RRAM or ReRAM), which consumes significantly less power than flash memory, could be a key differentiator for next-gen MCUs,” he explained.
“Fabbed at 65nm, RRAM would help reduce both die and memory size, while consuming only 1/10th of the power compared to flash.”
So, what is RRAM, exactly? Well, resistive random-access memory is a type of non-volatile (NV) random-access (RAM) that operates by changing the resistance across a dielectric. In its normal state, the dielectric has very high resistance and doesn’t conduct electricity. Applying just the right voltage across that dielectric can create small conductive filaments that allow electricity to flow. This process is reversible, leading to a memory. Some researchers have started calling this type of memory device a memristor.
In addition to potentially creating a new low-power paradigm for MCUs, RRAM could help overcome a number of bottlenecks the microelectronics industry is currently facing.
“As we shrink the size of the transistors that make up semiconductor memories further and further we run into problems of fabrication difficulty, power dissipation and switching speed,” University College London (UCL) researchers wrote on the university’s RRAM page.
“RRAM devices can be packed much more densely, fabricated in 3D arrays and have very low switching energies and fast switching speeds.”
To help further develop RRAM technology, Rambus recently announced a partnership with researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. According to Bronner, RRAM could potentially capture a lucrative position between flash memory and DRAM.
“Many semiconductor companies have expressed a strong interest in RRAM,” he concluded. “As such, our collaborative goal with Tsinghua researchers is to explore how to further improve the non-volatile memory so that it is ultimately suitable for consumer devices as well as more demanding platforms and environments.”