IBM claims chip breakthrough

In what is becoming nearly an annual event, IBM Corp. Research on Friday announced another advance in chip technology that is claimed to improve the performance of processors by up to 35 percent.

This breakthrough, called Strained Silicon, allows for the material to be stretched, thereby speeding the flow of electrons through transistors to increase performance while also decreasing power consumption in semiconductors.

"With this breakthrough in semiconductor technology, we ... can use conventional CMOS fabrication processes to enhance chip performances up to 35 percent. This comes from an enhanced speed of electron flow in transistors of up to 70 percent," said Philip Wong, senior manager for exploratory devices at IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

The technology likely will not be implemented in a commercial chip for another three to five years, Wong said. However, IBM will not have to do an extensive retooling of its manufacturing facilities to accommodate production, he added.

IBM will be able to implement the technology across all general logic, including ASICs and processors such as the PowerPC chips that power the company's iSeries and pSeries servers, Intel chips, and also more dedicated chips such as network processors.

IBM officials said they believe the company is taking a starkly different approach to some of its competitors, which are trying to extend chip performance by overcoming physical limitations and making circuits smaller. Instead, IBM is focusing more on ways to improve chip materials as well as device structures and design.

"One of the keys is to understand the material properties, such as silicon germanium, which is underneath the silicon. I think we have a long history of understanding these materials stemming from our work on silicon germanium bi-polar transistors," Wong said.

Explaining the process, Wong said the new technology takes advantage of the natural tendency of atoms inside different crystals to align with one another. When silicon is deposited on top of another material, which has atoms spaced farther apart, the atoms in the silicon stretch to line up with the atoms beneath it, which stretches or "strains" the silicon.

"The way we stretch the silicon is to first provide a foundation layer of atoms in the crystal for the atoms to align [with], so they can stretch. We need something to anchor it so it will stretch, and that anchor is a material called silicon germanium," Wong said.

IBM plans to present details of its strained silicon breakthrough in two technical papers to be presented at the Symposium on VLSI Technology in Kyoto, Japan on June 13.

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