Straining the silicon up north

The University of Newcastle upon Tyne has joined forces with Atmel to create ‘strained silicon’ microchips.

A project between academia and industry is aiming to producing faster, cheaper and more reliable integrated circuits.

The University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, has joined forces with Atmel to create ‘strained silicon’ microchips, which involves adding germanium to the traditional silicon used in semiconductor manufacturing. The research and development project will be based at Atmel’s North Tyneside semiconductor plant.

The ‘strain’ increases electron mobility leading to a higher current flow in transistors formed on a wafer. It is achieved by aligning atoms in a silicon film 10-30 nm thick with an underlying thick layer of unstrained silicon germanium (SiGe) alloy. Tensile strain in the silicon layer is engineered by the germanium concentration, which increases the separation of atoms in the alloy.

‘With this process we can create strained silicon microchips, which will be much faster or use less battery power than conventional microchips’ explained Professor Anthony O’Neill, who leads a team of 5 researchers at the University.

Atmel aren’t the only company interested in strained silicon technology. IBM has conducted much research in the area, as have AmberWave. Intel is also far along the R & D road, announcing last year that its new ‘Prescott’ processor is to use the technology.