IBM’s New Nano Chip Process Takes Cue From Nature

IBM has developed a method of assembling microchips using nanotechnology, the company stated Thursday, a potentially revolutionary process for insulating tiny wires by allowing them to assemble themselves around air gaps. This advance could make next-generation chips dramatically faster and more energy efficient, IBM said.

IBM borrowed the concept directly from nature, using the same approach that occurs in the creation of snowflakes, seashells and tooth enamel to create natural insulation around the nano-scale wires that make up a computer chip.

Chips made with the process could be up to 15 percent more energy efficient than the most advanced chips built with traditional technology, IBM said. Electrical signals could also flow up to 35 percent faster, potentially leading to additional advances in computing power and speed.

From the Lab to the Fab

With the technique, IBM said, Moore’s Law — the theory named after the founder of Intel which holds that the number of transistors on a like-size chip doubles every 24 months — can be dramatically sped up, with two such improvement cycles happening at once.

“This is the first time anyone has proven the ability to synthesize mass quantities of these self-assembled polymers and integrate them into an existing manufacturing process with great yield results,” said Dan Edelstein, IBM fellow and chief scientist of the self-assembly air-gap project.

“By moving self assembly from the lab to the fab, we are able to make chips that are smaller, faster and consume less power than existing materials and design architectures allow,” he added.

Eliminating Etching

As computer processing chips have advanced, traditional chip assembly techniques have limited the ability of manufacturers to continue to shrink them while still growing their speed and power. Most current microchips use tiny glass insulators to absorb and help dissipate heat from the surrounding wires.

Other researchers have attempted to create a vacuum effect around chip wires to eliminate the need for insulators to be installed, IBM said. Doing so would free up additional space on the chip for transistors.

Big Blue’s breakthrough came as the result of work done by researchers at the company’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., and the T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y., the company noted. The manufacturing technique was tested and perfected at the nanotechnology department at the University at Albany, near IBM’s headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.

IBM’s tests show the new technique can be integrated into existing chip fabrication facilities without major changes to the way things are done and that its approach could yield “millions of chips with consistent, high performance results,” the company stated.

The air-gap process eliminates a process by which transistors are installed on insulating material, which is then etched out with lasers. Instead, IBM’s now-patented approach involves a liquid mixture of compounds that are poured over a wafer on which wires have already been installed. The chip is then baked, with the result being “trillions of uniform, nano-scale holes” across the surface of a chip wafer.

By removing material from the wafer, the air holes then create a vacuum called an “air-gap” that acts as an insulator while causing relatively little friction.

Looking Ahead

IBM is hoping to start using the technique as soon as 2009 on its own chips, the company said. However, it may be some time after that before the technique becomes widespread — through licensing of the IBM technology or development of similar approaches.

Still, the advance is one of several IBM researchers have rolled out in recent weeks as the longtime patent leader seeks to reinvigorate its image as a developer of cutting-edge technology.

Last month, Big Blue announced it had devised an entirely new way of enabling chips to be stacked within devices, potentially reducing the need for additional wiring that slows devices down and drains battery power. In January, both IBM and Intel announced advances in assembly techniques aimed at reducing electricity leakage in microchips.

IBM has said it would selectively license the new technology, likely starting with existing partners such as Advanced Micro Devices and Toshiba.

Some Implications

The advances could have far-reaching implications, noted Enderle Group Principal Analyst Rob Enderle, because just about all device makers are seeking ways to make smaller devices that last longer on a single battery charge while all PC makers are interested in making more energy-efficient machines.

“There is also potential to drive down costs in manufacturing and design, and that has a lot of appeal,” he said.

The ability to make more energy-efficient chips would also be welcomed by many in the technology business, which is increasingly coming under criticism from environmental groups for producing inefficient machines that require more power than necessary to operate and cool.

This week, for instance, Apple found itself defending its environmental record after being called out by Greenpeace for contributing to global warming and helping to create a growing stream of so-called “i-waste.” Apple pledged to take steps to get greener, a promise met with applause from the environmental group.

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