Silicon sets semiconductors into turbo drive

Newly developed technology that ‘turbo charges’ the performance of semiconductors in everyday devices is to be mass-produced for the first time by a UK silicon specialist.

Newly developed technology that ‘turbo charges’ the performance of semiconductors in everyday devices is to be mass-produced for the first time by a UK silicon specialist.

Cardiff-based IQE will use patented strained silicon technology licensed from US developer AmberWave to produce microchips able to cope with the ever-increasing demands of advanced electronics products.

Strained silicon takes advantage of the tendency of atoms to line up with each other. Silicon is placed on top of another layer of material in which the atoms are spaced further apart, causing the silicon’s own atoms to pull away from each other to align with those below them.The bigger gaps between the atoms reduce resistance for electrons flowing through the silicon, allowing microchips to run faster and more efficiently at their existing size.

IQE – which supplies silicon wafers to many of the world’s biggest semiconductor companies – is claiming a coup following this month’s deal with AmberWave.

The UK firm will be the first to offer strained silicon at mass-volume levels. IT giant IBM recently announced its own strained silicon programme, but said production was unlikely before 2003.

Attempts to produce strained silicon have been plagued by damage caused to the material itself during the process. AmberWave was launched late last year to commercialise a technique developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that claims to solve the problem.

IQE spokesman Chris Meadows said strained silicon has the potential to save electronics firms from some difficult decisions arising from the use of standard silicon.

‘They could use other materials such as gallium arsenide instead of silicon, but in the context of mass-produced devices that is far more expensive,’ said Meadows.

‘The alternative is to push current silicon to its limits. But the result is going to be bigger devices, and the mobile phone industry is not going to be happy about going back to handsets the size of house bricks.’