Smaller, faster, and smarter

Computer chips are about to get even smaller, faster and smarter, thanks to an innovative new product from a company once more commonly associated with the packing material surrounding a new computer than the components inside the machine.

The Dow Chemical Company is supplying IBM with SiLK semiconductor dielectric resin, an insulating material that has allowed IBM to shrink the electronic circuitry that makes up the ‘brains’ of computers and other electronic devices.

IBM has announced a new process to build circuits to dimensions of 0.13 microns – more than 600 times thinner than a human hair and 35 percent smaller than the tiniest chip made today. They will also deliver up to a 30 percent increase in computing speed and performance. The first chips built with the new process are expected to be available next year.

The new technique uses a material known as a ‘low-k dielectric’ to shield millions of individual copper circuits on a chip, reducing electrical ‘crosstalk’ between wires that can hinder chip performance and waste power.

According to Joe Carr, general manager, Dow Advanced Electronic Materials, IBM’s technology is the first manufacturing process to combine copper interconnects with a low-k dielectric material. Silicon dioxide has been the standard dielectric material for more than 30 years.

‘Traditionally, the semiconductor industry has been able to double the speed of computers every 18 months,’ Carr said. ‘Known as Moore’s Law, this technology path is being challenged by the performance limitations of current materials and chip manufacturers are finding it harder and harder to design their way to more speed.’

With this challenge in mind, Dow researchers invented SiLK resin, a polymer that delivers electronic performance that is 40 percent better than that of silicon dioxide. Carr said Dow expects IBM’s announcement to lead to the adoption of SiLK resin as the industry’s material of choice for interlayer dielectrics, with expected sales to be well in excess of $200 million at maturity.

Every computer chip contains millions of transistors. The metal links – or interconnects – between each transistor need to be insulated so that electrical signals don’t get crossed. The better the insulator is at shepherding electrons along the correct path, the smaller and faster a chip can be. Because of its high dielectric constant (a measure of electrical performance), silicon dioxide is unable to keep electronic signals from degrading in the smallest semiconductor circuits. With a low dielectric constant, Dow’s product keeps signals speeding on their way. When SiLK resin is combined with high-speed copper interconnects, IBM is able to create integrated circuits that can process information far faster while using less power.

To speed the introduction of products based on the new manufacturing process, IBM also announced a custom chip offering called Cu-11. This application specific integrated circuit template will be manufactured with IBM’s 0.13 micron process technology, resulting in chip features as small as 0.11 microns (more than 900 times thinner than a human hair).

Cu-11 supports designs up to an unprecedented 40 million ‘gates’. IBM plans to make Cu-11 design kits, including software design tools and services, available in July to help customers build a new generation of customized chips capable of driving high performance Internet servers, power-saving cellular telephones, and advanced network communications gear.