IBM Advances Chip Technology With Breakthrough For Making Faster, More Efficient Semiconductors

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East Fishkill, N.Y - 03 Aug 1998: -- IBM today announced it has perfected a process for building high-speed transistors that can be used to deliver higher performance microchips for servers and mainframes, as well as more power-efficient chips for battery-operated hand-held devices. The technology, called "silicon-on-insulator (SOI)," represents a fundamental advance in the way chips are built.

"We believe SOI, with its high-performance and low-power characteristics, is a significant breakthrough in chip technology," said Mike Attardo, General Manager, IBM Microelectronics. "SOI and other advanced chip technologies will enable more powerful voice-recognition software to be broadly used in home computers, development of smaller cell phones with batteries lasting many hours longer than they do today, and the creation of entire new classes of portable devices for accessing the Internet. Like our copper chips, SOI will accelerate the industry's constant drive to create smaller, more powerful, lessexpensive electronic goods."

IBM's unique SOI process protects the millions of tiny transistors on a chip with a "blanket" of insulation, reducing harmful electrical effects that sap energy and hinder performance. IBM engineers have manufactured SOI chips that improve performance by up to 35 percent-- translating into faster computers and communications gear. For example, a microprocessor designed to operate at 400 MHz can instead be built using SOI and can achieve speeds of over 500 MHz.

At the same time, if performance levels are held constant, SOI chips can require as little as one-third the power of today's microchips. This is a important development, since reducing the power necessary to operate chip circuitry can significantly extend the battery life of portable devices, such as cell phones, mobile computers, and personal digital assistants (PDAs). IBM believes the low-power aspects of SOI technology will be key to the creation of multifunction, hand-held "information appliances" of the future.

The technology industry has been pursuing silicon-on-insulator technology for more than 15 years in an attempt to address the technology requirements of an increasingly diverse array of electronic products. The company's breakthrough allows IBM to build SOI chips in a high-volume manufacturing environment. As with its announcement of copper interconnect technology last year, IBM believes its approach to be the first commercially viable implementation of SOI for mainstream applications. The company intends to incorporate SOI in its chip products beginning next year.

All chips are basically made up of two key elements: transistors and "wires." The semiconductor industry has been grappling with ways to improve both since the invention of the integrated circuit nearly 40 years ago. An earlier IBM breakthrough improved wire design by allowing copper (a better conductor of electricity) to be substituted for aluminum. IBM is today shipping the first chips based on that copper process, less than a year after the technology was introduced.

Now, IBM's unique SOI process alters the design of transistors, essentially "turbo charging" them so they run faster and use less power. IBM's innovative approach allows SOI to be used in mainstream semiconductor manufacturing with few changes or additions to existing fabrication lines and at little additional cost.

IBM is already producing SOI-based chips in its East Fishkill, NY, pilot production line and will introduce the technology on its high-volume Burlington, VT, manufacturing lines in the first half of 1999. IBM plans to incorporate SOI technology into a wide range of semiconductors, including its merchant market custom chip products, standard products (such as the PowerPC microprocessor) and in chips used in its S/390, AS/400, and RS/6000 line of servers.

SOI technology has been explored for some time, yet technical hurdles made it difficult and expensive to apply in high-volume, mainstream chip making. As with copper, SOI represents the culmination of more than 15 years of collaboration between IBM Research and the company's manufacturing and development teams.

"SOI technology has had something of a checkered past," said Bijan Davari, IBM Fellow and Director of Advanced Logic Technology Development for IBM Microelectronics. "There have been a number of false starts and offshoot technologies that have failed, but the basic principles were sound. The significance of this announcement is that we have finally found the recipe for applying SOI in a real manufacturing environment for real products."

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IBM and IBM Microelectronics are registered trademarks, and PowerPC, S/390, AS/400, and RS/6000 are trademarks, of International Business Machines Corporation.