IBM, Partners Claim Breakthrough In Chip Manufacturing

Development of a heat-resistant hafnium-based material is projected to reduce the cost of manufacturing 32-nm microprocessors.

IBM and its partners, which include tech heavyweights Advanced Micro Devices, Sony, Toshiba, Samsung, and others, said Monday they have developed a key material that reduces the cost of manufacturing next-generation 32-nanometer microprocessors.

The proprietary material based on the chemical element hafnium makes it possible for chipmakers to design products that follow the same manufacturing process flow used in building conventional chips. Keeping the manufacturing steps the same means fewer expensive modifications in fabrication plants, Gary Patton, VP of IBM's semiconductor research and development center told InformationWeek.

Intel, which introduced 45-nm chips this quarter, is also building 32-nm chips that it's scheduled to deliver around the same 2009 timeframe as IBM and its partners. However, Intel and the IBM alliance, which includes Intel rival AMD, are taking very different approaches, based on their own needs.

Intel designs and manufactures its own x86 processors, so its approach fits its own system, Richard Doherty, research director for the Envisioneering Group said. IBM and its partners, however, needed an approach that could span different manufacturing systems. "Intel doesn't change its design as much or have to do custom designs," Doherty said. "Customizable would be a good description of the IBM approach to 32-nanometer chips."

The chips from both camps are sure to be offered for use in consumer electronics and PCs, while IBM is likely to adopt the technology in its next generation Power chips used in high-end servers. The IBM technology would also be suited for more specialized uses such as high-speed data switches and interconnects within data centers and telecommunications.

The breakthrough in the IBM-led technology revolves around transistors, the fundamental building blocks for all processors. In order to build more powerful chips with each generation, chipmakers have steadily shrunk the size of the transistors in order to fit more of them on a single piece of silicon. Intel, for example, has tested a 32-nm chip with 2 billion transistors. A 45-nm chip from Intel would have 200 million transistors on a single chip.

As transistors shrink, the use of conventional materials causes power leakage that detracts from the chip's overall performance. So rather than use polysilicon SiOn in transistors, chipmakers have turned to high-k metal gate silicon technology that incorporates the use of hafnium-based materials. What IBM and its partners have done is develop a material that can withstand the high temperatures of the manufacturing process.

That's important because of the process flow in chip manufacturing. To avoid exposing hafnium-based materials to extreme heat, they're typically inserted last in the process, while materials that serve the same purpose in conventional polysilicon SiON chips are inserted first. This reversal in the process makes manufacturing more expensive. "It introduces additional design restrictions," Patton said. "You have to make significant modifications."

By developing heat-resistant material, IBM and its partners can build 32-nm chips using the same manufacturing process flow used in making conventional microprocessors, Patton said.

IBM and its partners are ready to work with chip designers now, even though the first 32-nm chips won't be ready to ship until the second half of 2009, Patton said. While some problems still have to be addressed, the bulk of the work is done, and the partners are confident they will have production facilities ready in the announced timeframe. "This is not PowerPoint technology," Patton said.

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