IBM has announced that it’s discovered a “breakthrough method” to stretch silicon — the fundamental material at the heart of microchips — during standard semiconductor manufacturing, a development that is expected to allow it to start making faster versions of a wide variety of microchips that use less power within two years.
Purportedly, IBM’s advances reduce resistance to electrons flowing through chips enough to bolster processing speeds up to 35 percent. While the company’s research has concentrated on processors used in computers, the power saving potential of the new technology may be attractive to manufacturers of cellular phones and other devices that use microchips that amplify signals, according to a
New York Times
Called “Strained Silicon,” the technology stretches the material, speeding the flow of electrons through transistors to increase performance and decrease power consumption in semiconductors. IBM estimates that strained silicon technology could find its way into products by 2003. No word on exactly how this will affect Power PC chip development. IBM and Motorola make the Power PC chips used in Apple hardware.
“Most of the industry is struggling with extending chip performance as we approach the fundamental physical limits of silicon,” said Randy Isaac, vice president of science and technology, IBM Research, said in announcing the breakthrough. “We’re able to maintain our technology lead by also focusing our research on innovative ways to improve chip materials, device structures and design. This approach to R&D makes possible breakthroughs like strained silicon.”
The real breakthrough is that we are using conventional manufacturing technology, he told the Times. The new technology takes advantage of the natural tendency for atoms inside compounds to align with one another.
When silicon is deposited on top of a substrate with atoms spaced farther apart, the atoms in silicon stretch to line up with the atoms beneath, stretching — or “straining” — the silicon. In the strained silicon, electrons experience less resistance and flow up to 70 percent faster, which can lead to chips that are up to 35 percent faster, without having to shrink the size of transistors, according to IBM.
“Just as important as finding ways to improve the performance of silicon is getting these breakthroughs out of the labs and into the marketplace quickly,” said Bijan Davari, vice president of semiconductor development, IBM Microelectronics. “Strained silicon, combined with our prior advances in copper, silicon-on-insulator, silicon germanium and low-K materials, will allow us to maintain our one-to-two year lead in semiconductor technologies over the rest of the industry.”
With IBM’s announcement, analysts expect other chip manufacturers, such as Motorola, to rush to catch up. However, before IBM offers commercial quantities of strained silicon devices to its hardware divisions and outside customers, it must improve the yield of defect-free chips from the new process, Davari told the Times. He added that researchers were also working on ways to bring the performance of the hole-based circuits more in line with the electron- based circuits because many chips use combinations of the two.
IBM will present details of its strained silicon breakthroughs in two technical papers being presented at the Symposium on VLSI Technology in Kyoto, Japan on June 13. (Thanks to MacCentral reader David Schloss for the heads-up on this one. By the way, you have to have a subscription to the NY Times Web site to access the story.)