IBM, Georgia Tech Deep Freeze for Gigahertz

Researchers from IBM and Georgia Institute of Technology have demonstrated a silicon-germanium (SiGe) processor that, when cryogenically frozen, can operate at frequencies higher than 500 gigahertz (GHz), some 250 times faster than the chips of today’s mobile phones.

The phenomenal jump in chip clock speed may be limited to extreme cold environments, such as outer space, but is being applied for NASA’s return to the moon, and is intended to make a path to future processing that will eventually function at regular temperatures, Georgia Tech Byers Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and project researcher John Cressler told TechNewsWorld.

“We are cooling to absolute zero to understand the way forward, even for room-temperature applications,” he said. “We believe it will pave the way to do the same thing at room temperature, eventually.”

Frozen Frequencies

IBM and Georgia Tech have a long history developing silicon-germanium chips, a technology that makes the processors more efficient, but maintains conventional manufacturing techniques.

The latest development has been going on since about 2000, and the last nine months were focused on getting the measurement information of the SiGe chips, according to Cressler.

“It’s a challenging piece of data to get, but one that’s paid off,” he said.

The IBM and Georgia Tech researchers — supported by Big Blue, NASA and Georgia Tech — said the frozen SiGe chips may be able to support “near TeraHertz,” or 1,000 GHz frequencies at some point. Right now, at room temperature, the SiGe chips operate at approximately 350 GHz, researchers said.

Cold Technology

The IBM Georgia Tech technology research is taking advantage of the physics that dictate cooling advantages for electronics, which can transfer and move electrical currents more rapidly at colder temperatures, IC Insights Vice President of Market Research Brian Matas told TechNewsWorld.

Matas was impressed with the processor speed jump, indicating it is “way beyond anything available now,” but he also indicated the deep-freeze requirements of the technology would limit it.

Government, military and extreme modeling applications, where funding is less of an issue, may benefit from the technology, but it is beyond a decade away from more widespread application, according to Matas.

He also pointed out that surrounding circuitry and peripheral components around the cooled SiGe chips would have to keep pace to take advantage of the technology.

Icy Path Forward

Researchers behind the technology said it has potential in commercial communications systems, defense electronics, space exploration and remote sensing.

Cressler reported the team has been working with NASA to incorporate the technology in the U.S. space agency’s next lunar mission, where ultra-low temperatures would provide an ideal environment for the super-fast, super-cold chips.

The research is aimed at improved understanding of SiGe and the enhanced operation of electronics at the frosty temperatures, which will likely warm up over time, he noted.

“It’s a better way to understand the way forward,” he said.

What’s Next

The frozen SiGe technology is somewhat exotic and not immediately practical for large-scale, commercial applications, but it does demonstrate what can be done when germanium is added to the processor picture, Mercury Research President Dean McCarron told TechNewsWorld.

He agreed that while there may be limited appications for the technology now, it has the potential to push processors forward.

“This kind of basic research on materials science is what lays the groundwork for what’s next in process technology,” McCarron said.

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