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3/24/2006
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IBM Bets On Nanotech For Faster PCs

IBM has built the first complete electronic integrated circuit around one "carbon nanotube" molecule, a new material that the company hopes will enhance performance on products from computers to diagnostic equipment.

IBM Corp. researchers are working to build faster PCs and more reliable electronics, a company research scientist said.

The company reported Friday it has built the first complete electronic integrated circuit around one "carbon nanotube" molecule, a new material that IBM hopes will enhance performance on products from computers to diagnostic equipment.

Nanotechnology is being explored by many companies as a means to keep innovation moving forward. The technology aims to improve product reliability in devices from personal computers to instrumentation for space exploration.

"Technology improves at a certain rate and some people say at today's pace, technology we will see limitations within the next 10 years," said Kimberly Allen, director of display technology and strategy at iSuppli Corp. "If we can find an alternative, improvements would continue rather than slowdown."

Today's PC chips operate at speeds of a couple of gigahertz. "The circuit we fabricated on one nanotube is 50 megahertz, which is substantially less," said Joerg Appenzeller, research member at the IBM TJ Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. "Ultimately, we believe it will be much faster than silicon. In the last five years we've manage to ramp up from a couple of hundred hertz to this 50 megahertz."

Although far from its ultimate goal, IBM said development remains on track. The promising news: "we don't see a show stopper," Appenzeller said.

While chip have not reached speeds similar to silicon, Appenzeller believes carbon nanotube will advance well beyond silicon's capabilities. "The results will be smaller, faster, less expensive products over time, though very expensive in the beginning because it's an emerging technology," said Mark DeVoss, senior analyst for flash memory and emerging technology at iSuppli Corp. "The technology is still 10 to 15 years out. It's not in the next Apple iPod."

DeVoss said carbon nanotube is one of many technologies being explored by companies and universities. Nantero Inc., a nanotechnology company, for example, continues to explore carbon nanotubes for next-generation semiconductor devices, such as memory.

The circuit built by the IBM team was a ring oscillator, a circuit chip makers typically build to evaluate new manufacturing processes or materials. The circuit stresses certain properties that gives an indication of how new technologies will perform when used to build complete chips.

IBM noted the development as significant because the circuit was built using standard semiconductor processes and used a single molecule as the base for all components in the circuit, rather than linking together individually constructed components. This can simplify manufacturing and provide consistency to test and adjust materials in these applications.

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