Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

IBM says Intel not alone in solving 45nm chip roadblock

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 28, 2007

(Intel is an SVW sponsor.)

IBM says it has matched Intel's chip breakthrough with the discovery of materials that can make chips smaller and faster.

"Until now, the chip industry was facing a major roadblock in terms of how far we could push current technology," said Dr. T.C. Chen, vice president of Science and Technology, IBM Research. "After more than ten years of effort, we now have a way forward.

IBM's East Fishkill fab in New York will start producing 45nm chips in 2008.

. . .

Foremski's Take: IBM is one of the only chipmakers that can take on Intel in bragging rights around leading edge chip technologies.

IBM has pioneered a lot of important chip technologies. For example, It figured out a way of using copper in chips so that the metal wouldn't contaminate the entire wafer. It also pioneered silicon-on-insulator (SOI)--a technology that boosts the speed of chips. (Intel won't touch SOI, it says there are better ways to achieve a similar performance boost.)

The difference between the two chipmakers is that IBM is in the foundry business, it makes chips for whoever pays the invoice. Intel is not, it works only for itself.

Using IBM to make your chips gives you access to leading edge  technologies but it doesn't come cheap. And that is the challenge that the AMD/IBM alliance faces: to be able to match Intel's 45nm process at a comparable cost of production.


Here is IBM's announcement:


YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--IBM (NYSE: IBM - News) today announced it has developed a long-sought improvement to the transistor - the tiny on/off switch that serves as the basic building block of virtually all microchips made today.

Working with AMD and its other development partners Sony and Toshiba, the company has found a way to construct a critical part of the transistor with a new material, clearing a path toward chip circuitry that is smaller, faster and more power-efficient than previously thought possible. As important, the technology can be incorporated into existing chip manufacturing lines with minimal changes to tooling and processes, making it economically viable.

The achievement is expected to have widespread impact, leading to improvements in electronic systems of all kinds, from computers to consumer electronics. IBM has inserted the technology into its state-of-the-art semiconductor manufacturing line in East Fishkill, NY and will apply it to products with chip circuits as small as 45 nanometers (billionths of a meter) starting in 2008.

"Until now, the chip industry was facing a major roadblock in terms of how far we could push current technology," said Dr. T.C. Chen, vice president of Science and Technology, IBM Research. "After more than ten years of effort, we now have a way forward. With chip technology so pervasive in our everyday lives, this work will benefit people in many ways."

The technology, called "high-k metal gate," substitutes a new material into a critical portion of the transistor that controls its primary on/off switching function. The material provides superior electrical properties compared to its predecessor, enhancing the transistor's function while also allowing the size of the transistor to be shrunk beyond limits being reached today.

As a result, the use of this material could allow the industry to continue on the path defined by "Moore's Law," the chip industry axiom that predicts a doubling of the number of transistors on a chip every 12-18 months, thereby allowing chip performance and function to increase as well. The semiconductor industry has been able to maintain this rate of improvement for decades, but was reaching the limits of current technology, threatening a slowdown in further advancements.

As important as the new material itself is the method for introducing it into current manufacturing techniques. The creation of this transistor component with the new material was accomplished by the IBM team without requiring major tooling or process changes in manufacturing - an essential element if the technology is to be economically viable.

Incremental work leading up to this achievement had been published earlier by IBM in scientific journals and presented at chip technology conferences. IBM plans to publish the summary of this final achievement in a similar forthcoming venue.

About the IBM Research Division

IBM Research is the world's largest information technology research organization, with about 3,000 scientists and engineers in eight labs in six countries. IBM has produced more research breakthroughs than any other company in the IT industry. For more information on IBM Research, visit

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