IBM rockets forth with ultra-fast microchip

In 1965, a research director of electronics pioneer Fairchild Semiconductor was asked to predict the future of the microchip industry.

At the time, Gordon Moore had little data to go on as the industry was still at the embryonic stage. Still, he argued that engineers would be able to squeeze an ever-increasing number of electronic devices onto microchips, and he guessed that the number would double each year.

Three years later, Moore co-founded Intel Corp. and his fabled guess became known as Moore’s Law.

It’s no secret the microchip industry has since exploded with improvements to the technology being added all the time.

One recent innovation comes from IBM Corp. with the announcement they’ve perfected a new manufacturing technique that can deliver a speed boost of 30 per cent in computing speed, Internet access, wireless phones and other devices.

Using a material known as “low-k dielectric” to shield millions of individual copper circuits on a chip, the new method will reduce electrical “crosstalk” or interference that can occur without proper insulation between conductors.

Jim Ryan, IBM’s manager of interconnect technology in East Fishkill, N.Y., said the new custom microchips are high on performance power and low on power consumption.

“[We’ve worked] to improve performance and make the structure compatible with lower power consumption,” he said. “The performance improvement, which is between 30 and 40 per cent, varies depending on the design and how your structure is laid out.”

IBM stated this new process will spot them a one to two year lead over the rest of the industry. The low-k dielectric seal is essentially an insulator that will help electronic signals move faster. Note to other chip manufacturers – while IBM’s technique is proprietary, the material itself is a semiconductor dielectric available commercially through the Dow Chemical Co.

“IBM’s semiconductor labs for decades have been researching for new techniques to improve the performance of the semiconductor process,” said Rich Partridge, vice-president of parallel open systems for D.H. Brown in Port Chester, N. Y. “It’s not a surprise for those who recognize IBM’s strength (as an innovator)…low-k dielectric capping silicon insulator and copper wiring solves limitations in traditional CMOS (complimentary metal oxide silicon) techniques, which had run into some barriers.”

Also worthy of mention is the significant lead IBM has eked out for itself in semiconductor manufacturing circles.

“It’s a terrific competitive advantage,” remarked Fred Zieber, president of San Jose, Calif.-based Pathfinder Research. “This is a big-time lead and it’s extremely rare in the semiconductor industry. They are the first folks to do both a copper and a low-k dielectric [chip]; from a strategic point of view, IBM plans to keep ahead in manufacturing.”

In 1997, IBM switched from manufacturing aluminium wired microchips to copper as the latter material is more conducive to electrical charges.

Zieber estimated a 37 per cent speed improvement with the silicon coated microchip, adding that increased heat is not a factor.

“The new dielectric is used to lower the parasitic factor,” he said. “The less parasitic activity, the less heat. This will help with future processor generations.”

Ryan added IBM’s custom chip design kit offering – called Cu-11 – will be manufactured with the company’s micron process technology, resulting in chip features as small as .11 microns (more than 900 times thinner than a human hair).

“It’s a strategic process technology we developed to be used in a wide variety of products,” Ryan said. “It’s an improvement for ASIC (application specific integrated circuit), SRAM (static random access memory), and microprocessors.”

IBM anticipates the Cu-11 will solidify its position in the ASIC war – they ranked at the top of the class in 1999 according to marketshare figures from Dataquest Inc. The Cu-11 includes design tools and services for customers who want to build customized chips that can run high performance Internet servers, cell phones, and advanced network communications gear.

The chips will be used to produce future generations of the IBM Power4 processor, which is intended for use in IBM’s RS/6000 and AS/400 computer servers.