‘Secret sauce’ to juice up IBM chips

Times Staff Writer

In trying to tackle some of the semiconductor industry’s biggest technical hurdles, IBM Corp. took inspiration from seashells and snowflakes.

IBM plans to announce a breakthrough in chip-making technology Thursday that the company said would solve a vexing problem -- how to keep the 27 miles of copper wiring that are wedged into a thumbnail-sized piece of silicon from generating interference, which slows the processing speed and creates heat.

The Armonk, N.Y., technology pioneer, which supplies the chips used in the top three video game consoles, plans to solve the problem by creating insulation among the wires by tapping the same process that allows seashells, snowflakes and bubbles in a bath to form a pattern.


IBM said it created a chemical compound, which it declined to identify, that assembles itself in a uniform system of holes after being poured onto a silicon wafer with a wired chip pattern and baked. A vacuum is created in each hole, resulting in better insulation of the wires.

“The compound itself is the secret sauce,” said Adalio Sanchez, general manager of IBM’s global engineering solutions, systems and technology group. “You are using the periodic table in this industry like you’ve never used it before.”

IBM said its new process would spur the development of chips forward by two years, enabling them to run 35% faster or consume 15% less energy than other advanced chips. IBM expects chips that take advantage of the new process to be manufactured in a range of products, starting in 2009.

“Your cellphone will be able to do a lot more than it can do now,” or the battery will last longer, said Dan Sokol, an analyst with the Envisioneering Group, a consulting firm in Seaford, N.Y.

For nearly half a century, the industry has followed a phenomenon called Moore’s Law, which says that the number of components on integrated circuits such as silicon computer processors will roughly double every couple of years, while the cost per component declines at a comparable rate. But scientists recently have become concerned about bumping up against physical barriers.

In January, IBM and Intel Corp. announced competing breakthroughs in the use of a new metal called hafnium to replace silicon in a key part of the semiconductor where transistors were leaking current. Intel is expected to start making hafnium-based chips during the second half of this year. IBM is expected to roll out its chips with hafnium in 2008.


With its latest announcement, “IBM is hoisting a flag on Moore’s Law,” said Bob Djurdjevic, president of Annex Research, a market research and consulting firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. “What it does immediately for IBM is earn it some bragging rights.”

IBM plans to use the new chip-making process for its own products, such as computer servers, as well as license it to partners such as Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp., Sanchez said.

He said the new technology could be adapted by any manufacturing line without extensive changes.

The new process was jointly invented at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose and its T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y.

It was adapted for commercial use by the University at Albany in New York state and IBM’s Semiconductor Research and Development Center in East Fishkill, N.Y.