IBM: Chip material will boost wireless performance

IBM has improved the performance of a chip-making material that can be used to make advanced wireless devices such as high-bandwidth personal-area networks.

Silicon germanium is the ingredient within IBM manufacturing technology that allows radio chips to run at high frequencies while taking advantage of the benefits of silicon manufacturing techniques, says Bernie Meyerson, chief technologist for IBM's System and Technology Group. As of last week, IBM's foundry customers can implement a new generation of silicon germanium technology that doubles the performance of transistors compared with older generations, he says.

Most computing chips are made from silicon, an abundant element that is ideal for the manufacturing of semiconductors. However, in some cases pure silicon transistors can't reach the high frequency levels of around 60GHz that is demanded by advanced wireless radios, Meyerson says. Silicon transistors have to be very small to reach high frequencies - so small that electricity can leak, causing the chip to overheat, he says.

Wireless chipmakers currently use a substance called gallium arsenide for their chips. This material is more expensive than silicon germanium, but for years has been the only way to reach frequencies around 60GHz, Meyerson says.

Because silicon germanium chips are relatively inexpensive to manufacture, IBM believes it can replace chips built with more expensive substances, such as gallium arsenide, Meyerson says. Chipmakers also can increase the speed of silicon germanium transistors to around 60GHz without having to make them as small as silicon transistors, he says.

Chips capable of 60GHz could be used to create a wireless personal-area network that offers a high-speed Internet connection over a very short distance, Meyerson says. The combination of fast download speeds and a short coverage area could reduce the ability of outsiders to steal wireless signals from office workers, he says.

Some automobiles already use a wireless radar system to warn drivers of obstacles while the car is backing up. But wireless chips running at around 77GHz could enable the driver to set a futuristic cruise control that would accelerate or decelerate depending on the distance between the driver's car and the car ahead of it in a traffic lane, Meyerson says.

Chip designers have been talking about these types of applications for years, but very few products can be found in appreciable volumes, says Len Jelinek, director and principal analyst with iSuppli.

"Demand will come once you demonstrate you can build it. We're finally now getting more and more Bluetooth applications out there, now that people know how to build it into products," Jelinek says.

Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology that was hyped as the future of wireless networks in the early part of the decade, but is settling into more specific applications, such as wireless headsets for mobile phones.

IBM declined to name foundry customers that plan to use the new silicon germanium technology, citing their desire to keep production plans secret from competitors.

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