Holey Chip: Another IBM Breakthrough

When IBM, in January, announced it had found a way to drastically cut electricity leakage in chips BusinessWeek noted, “That announcement—made alongside a similar but separate one by Intel Corp.—was hailed as the biggest advances in transistor technology in four decades.” It appears now, that IBM has done it again; on May 3 it announced it had developed a self-assembly process which brings, “the equivalent of two generations of Moore’s Law wiring performance improvements in a single step.” IBM has already made chips using the new processes in its East Fishkill, New York fabrication plant. John Kelly, IBM’s senior vice president of technology, said “this is the advent of a new era.”

According to the official press release, “The natural pattern-creating process that forms seashells, snowflakes, and enamel on teeth has been harnessed by IBM to form trillions of holes to create insulating vacuums around the miles of nano-scale wires packed next to each other inside each computer chip.” These vacuum holes, considered the ultimate insulator, will lessen the wiring capacitance, or loss of electricity as it flows through the chips. Wiring capacitance generates undesirable heat and slows the speed at which data can move through a chip. Top Tech News refers to Mark Margevicius, Research Director at Gartner, when they state that the breakthrough, “could mean lower power requirements and less-expensive semiconductor manufacturing, as well as faster chips.” IBM claims the new chips will be 35 percent faster or use 15 percent less power; or a combination of both.

Richard Doherty, research director at Envisioneering Group, has offered various praises of the breakthrough. He reportedly said, “It’s likely to save energy and increase chip speeds more than any other single advance in the last few years,” as well as that, “It’s the most significant semiconductor technology innovation in a decade.” In the latter comment whether Doherty was referring to IBM’s transition ten years ago from aluminum to copper wiring in chips is not stated, however, that move has since become the industry standard. It is also worth noting that the chief scientist on that IBM project and on this more recent one are the same, Dan Edelstein. This backs up the thoughts of John Kelly, who said in BusinessWeek, “We believe we’re way ahead of our competition with these technologies.”

Unfortunately, being ahead with the technologies does not necessarily put one ahead in the market. However, the development may allow IBM to catch up with Intel, the current leader of the chip manufacturing pack. According to BusinessWeek, “Right now, Intel is about one year ahead of AMD and IBM in efforts to increase the density of transistors in its chips, which allows it to fit more chips on wafers in the manufacturing process. That’s a key factor in reducing the cost of producing chips. AMD expects to be just one half-year behind during the next generation of chips, by the end of this year. After that, the air-gap insulation technologies will click in.” IBM anticipates introducing chips utilizing this process in 2009.

While IBM will obviously capitalize on the development, it will also share it with its strategic partners; partners such as AMD, Toshiba, Sony, and Freescale Semiconductor. IBM would like to see Intel slip, and it will offer any help it can, at a price, to those with the same idea. The strategic partnership may very well give AMD a much needed boost; the company posted a first quarter loss of over $600 million. The New York Times notes, “That [partnership] could prove crucial for Advanced Micro Devices, which relies on I.B.M.’s manufacturing capacity, and which is currently struggling to keep from falling behind Intel in the market for mainstream commercial microprocessors.” BusinessWeek reports, “The chip manufacturing advance won’t help AMD immediately, but it hopes to be able to offer PC and server makers superior products to those of Intel in 2009.”

The New York Times says, “The new material suggests that I.B.M. may be taking an approach different from that of the Intel Corporation, which in January announced that it would redesign the way it makes transistors to take advantage of a new insulating material.” While IBM has not come right out and mentioned that it is going after Intel, BusinessWeek points out, “The timing [of the IBM announcement] seemed to be designed to undercut rival Intel, whose executives are giving their annual briefing to analysts in New York the same day.” Intel has not commented on whether or not it will make use of IBM’s innovation, but says that it has looked into the research.

A more complete version of this posting, with journal articles, and research reports can be found at the website of Analyst Views Weekly.

More information on this topic can be found in the Processors & Semiconductors section of Northern Light’s Software, Computers & Services Market Intelligence Center.

And in the following articles:

IBM’s Chip Breakthrough
May 3, 2007
In an announcement that could shake up the global chip industry, IBM is scheduled to announce on May 3 two technology breakthroughs that analysts say could fundamentally change the way chips are made and dramatically improve their efficiency. The timing seemed to be designed to undercut rival Intel, whose executives are giving their annual briefing to analysts in New York the same day.

IBM’s Latest Chip Advance Cuts Power Usage
Wall Street Journal,
May 3, 2007
International Business Machines Corp. unveiled a new way of developing semiconductor chips that permits significantly lower power consumption and smaller size. IBM said the technique involves growing chips with tiny airless holes that serve as vacuums. These vacuums insulate the wires that run through the holes in the chips better than the silicon materials used for insulation.

IBM Chip Uses Self-Assembling Material
PC Magazine,
May 3, 2007
IBM has developed a way to make microchips run up to one-third faster or use 15 percent less power by using an exotic material that “self-assembles” in a similar way to a seashell or snowflake.

IBM’s Chip Technique a ‘Tremendous Breakthrough’
May 3, 2007
IBM’s new chipmaking technique uses holes to alleviate a problem that has plagued the semiconductor industry: electricity leakage. “It’s a tremendous breakthrough,” said Envisioneering’s Richard Doherty. “It’s likely to save energy and increase chip speeds more than any other single advance in the last few years.”

I.B.M. to Announce an Advance in Making Chips Faster and More Energy-Efficient
New York Times,
May 2, 2007
The advance, to be announced Thursday, involves a manufacturing process that uses heat to create trillions of atomic-scale holes in a thin layer of material deposited on top of the conducting wires at different stages of chip making. The material is then extracted through the holes, leaving insulating vacuum channels around the miles of ultrathin wires that make up a modern microchip.


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