Unlike conventional RAM chip technologies, data in MRAM is not stored as electric charge or current flows, but by magnetic storage elements. The elements are formed from two ferromagnetic plates, each of which can hold a magnetization, separated by a thin insulating layer. One of the two plates is a permanent magnet set to a particular polarity; the other plate's magnetization can be changed to match that of an external field to store memory. This configuration is known as a magnetic tunnel junction and is the simplest structure for an MRAM bit. A memory device is built from a grid of such "cells".
The simplest method of reading is accomplished by measuring the electrical resistance of the cell. A particular cell is (typically) selected by powering an associated transistor that switches current from a supply line through the cell to ground. Due to the tunnel magnetoresistance, the electrical resistance of the cell changes due to the relative orientation of the magnetization in the two plates. By measuring the resulting current, the resistance inside any particular cell can be determined, and from this the magnetization polarity of the writable plate. Typically if the two plates have the same magnetization alignment (low resistance state) this is considered to mean "1", while if the alignment is antiparallel the resistance will be higher (high resistance state) and this means "0".
Data is written to the cells using a variety of means. In the simplest "classic" design, each cell lies between a pair of write lines arranged at right angles to each other, parallel to the cell, one above and one below the cell. When current is passed through them, an induced magnetic field is created at the junction, which the writable plate picks up. This pattern of operation is similar to magnetic-core memory, a system commonly used in the 1960s. This approach requires a fairly substantial current to generate the field, however, which makes it less interesting for low-power uses, one of MRAM's primary disadvantages. Additionally, as the device is scaled down in size, there comes a time when the induced field overlaps adjacent cells over a small area, leading to potential false writes. This problem, the half-select (or write disturb) problem, appears to set a fairly large minimum size for this type of cell. One experimental solution to this problem was to use circular domains written and read using the giant magnetoresistive effect, but it appears this line of research is no longer active.
A newer technique, spin-transfer torque (STT) or spin-transfer switching, uses spin-aligned ("polarized") electrons to directly torque the domains. Specifically, if the electrons flowing into a layer have to change their spin, this will develop a torque that will be transferred to the nearby layer. This lowers the amount of current needed to write the cells, making it about the same as the read process. There are concerns that the "classic" type of MRAM cell will have difficulty at high densities due to the amount of current needed during writes, a problem that STT avoids. For this reason, the STT proponents expect the technique to be used for devices of 65 nm and smaller. The downside is the need to maintain the spin coherence. Overall, the STT requires much less write current than conventional or toggle MRAM. Research in this field indicates that STT current can be reduced up to 50 times by using a new composite structure. However, higher speed operation still requires higher current.
Other potential arrangements include "thermal-assisted switching" (TAS-MRAM), which briefly heats up (reminiscent of phase-change memory) the magnetic tunnel junctions during the write process and keeps the MTJs stable at a colder temperature the rest of the time; and "vertical transport MRAM" (VMRAM), which uses current through a vertical column to change magnetic orientation, a geometric arrangement that reduces the write disturb problem and so can be used at higher density.