San Francisco: IBM has found a way to use the designs of nature in building the next generation of powerful computer chips.
The breakthrough marks the first time chips have been made with a self-assembling nanotechnology, using the same process that forms seashells and snowflakes, company officials said in interviews on 2 May in San Francisco.
Scientists at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose and its Yorktown, N.Y., laboratory developed a material with unique properties that can help create vacuum pockets around the miles of copper wires that run along a computer chip.
The material, and the vacuums, will serve as insulation, preventing the chips from using too much energy and getting too hot. In addition, the chips will have a 35% increase in performance, maintaining the historic trend of semiconductors continually getting smaller and faster at the same time that their price drops.
That trend, laid down by Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and thereafter known as Moore's Law, dictates that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years.
"This is a greater insulator than anything that's around today," said Adalio Sanchez, general manager of IBM's global engineering solutions systems and technology group. "We think this is a major advance in this industry."
While significant, analysts said, the announcement is not as major as news unveiled in January by both IBM and Intel about the use of a new material, hafnium, to make new chips more energy efficient.
That solution, which the industry referred to as "high-k" for the physics symbol for an energy constant, "clearly solved a problem that desperately needed to be solved," said Nathan Brookwood, a research fellow at Insight 64, a market research and consulting organization in Saratoga. While Tuesday's announcement is significant, Brookwood said, the roadblock that it fixes wasn't going to cause trouble for chipmakers for another few years.
One element of IBM's announcement that was particularly welcomed by the industry was the notion that the technology could work in the manufacturing process, and chip companies won't even need to build new plants to make it. Often such breakthroughs are achievable only in a lab, but IBM said it already has computers running on the new chips, and that wide-scale manufacturing is expected by 2009 or 2010.
"It's not just a research paper," said Dave Lammers, the director of Wesrch.com, a Web site operated by San Jose's VLSI Research for people in the semiconductor industry. "It's really pretty impressive. Everybody was pleasantly surprised. It should give some credibility to IBM's claim that they're not far behind Intel."
IBM research partners AMD, Sony, Toshiba and Freescale will have rights to the new technology.
Microprocessors have about 24 miles of copper wire running around a silicon chip the size of a thumbnail, IBM's Sanchez said. The wire is only 32 nanometers wide -- incredibly tiny, when you consider that a human hair is 80,000 nanometers wide. When data courses through those wires -- as computer users type e-mail and watch video online, for example -- the wires get hot. And when one wire gets hot, it heats up other wires.
IBM's new material, known as a polymer, can be poured atop the wires, and then trillions of tiny holes "will turn it into Swiss cheese," analyst Brookwood said. The material and the vacuum provide the insulation.Because the chip is so tiny, conventional lithography made drilling the holes impossible.
"IBM found compounds whose molecules will line up in nice patterns when you heat them up," he said. "The molecules arrange themselves like nice little rows of soldiers. Then they can spray acid on it. It's really clever."
"This moves nanotechnology from the lab into the factory, which is an important milestone here," he said. IBM referred to that as a self-assembly, because the holes form on their own, in much the same way that the crystals form on a snowflake, or the lines form on a seashell.
But it's not any kind of step toward a machine reproducing itself.
It assembles itself "in the same sense that a seashell assembles itself," Brookwood said. "But the science fiction notion of a machine that's thinking, 'If I put another nut here, I'll be better' -- we're a long way from that."