Nature provides a chip off the old shell
Taking a cue from seashells, IBM is using a pattern-creating process found in nature to manufacture its latest computer chips. The company has adapted the process that forms seashells, snowflakes, and enamel on teeth to make trillions of holes that provide insulating vacuums around the nano-scale wires inside each chip. As a result, the new chips work 35 percent faster or consume 15 percent less energy than even the most advanced chips using conventional techniques.
Although this new form of insulation is commonly referred to as “airgaps,” the gaps are really airless vacuum. Scientist see vacuum as the ultimate antidote for what is known as wiring capacitance. That occurs when two conductors, in this case adjacent wires on a chip, siphon electrical energy from one another, generating heat and slowing the data as it moves through a chip.
IBM’s patented technique uses a mix of special compounds to form a vacuum between the miles of copper wires on a chip.
“This is the first time anyone has proven the ability to synthesize mass quantities of these self-assembled polymers and integrate them into an existing manufacturing process with great yield results,” said Dan Edelstein, IBM Fellow and chief scientist of the self- assembly airgap project. “By moving self assembly from the lab to the fab, we are able to make chips that are smaller, faster and consume less power than existing materials and design architectures allow.”
Until now, chip designers often battled capacitance by pushing ever more power through chips, but that creates other problems. What’s more, traditional insulators have become tenuously fragile as chip features get smaller and smaller, and they don’t insulate as well as a vacuum.
Already a part of IBM’s manufacturing line in East Fishkill, NY, the self-assembly process is expected to be in all the company’s chip production lines in 2009.
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