Texas Instruments Inc.Dallas, TX

Mixed Signal and Digital Signal Processor on a single chip

Over the years, Texas Instruments has led the semiconductor revolution. The Dallas company has notched one breakthrough after another and introduced many of the technologies that are now commonplace in PCs and electronics. So in August, when TI developed a new computer chip manufacturing technology that would allow it to build the tiniest transistors ever, it garnered instant attention. These new semiconductors, which feature an effective channel length of 0.07 micron, allow TI to pack 400 million transistors -- the basic building blocks of a processor -- on a single, low-voltage chip with a clock speed of one gigahertz. "It will push high-speed wireless and multimedia communications far beyond the limits of today's technology," explains Peter Rickert, TI's technology platform development manager. "It will allow existing devices to become far more powerful and create opportunities for new technology." Over the next few years, that will translate into smaller appliances, such as hearing aids that can be implanted directly into the ear and more sophisticated motor controls in industry. It also will allow wireless telephones to handle data and video along with voice, and lead to new handheld devices with powerful capabilities. In the PC arena, the chip will likely fuel major improvements in components, including hard drives capable of reading gigabytes of data per second and advanced DSL modems that provide high-speed, always-on Internet access. The chip already is slated for use in the UltraSPARC line of microprocessors from Sun Microsystems Inc., which will operate at a speed greater than one gigahertz. The key to the new design is the ability of the chip to simultaneously handle analog and digital operations. As a result, TI can provide mixed-signal function along with high-speed digital logic from the start to create a so-called "system on a chip." The project, which began about two years ago, required TI scientists to overcome several obstacles. They had to combine copper wiring with other highly specialized materials to lower on-chip resistance, use new forms of insulating materials, pack transistors closer together than ever, and drastically lower power consumption. Based on the same CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology that drives today's PCs, the new semiconductor -- approximately 1,000 times thinner than a human hair -- will begin full-fledged commercial production in 2001. The 400 million transistors that reside on the new chip compare with about 7.5 million transistors running on a 450 MHz chip today. Interconnected with up to seven layers of wiring, the design will produce unprecedented flexibility and a tenfold increase in performance. This will allow the chip to be used in PCs, but it also will be adapted for a wide range of other applications. "It's an evolutionary step forward using revolutionary items and technology," says Rickert. "The industry is constantly facing new challenges to make the technology smaller, faster, and more efficient." In this case, one of the most significant challenges was ensuring that the copper interconnect worked properly. Although TI has used copper in its semiconductors before, it never had created a chip interconnect made exclusively from copper. TI also overcame obstacles to combine digital and analog functions on the same chip. Although some observers question the ability of Texas Instruments to meet ambitious production schedules -- and TI admits it has hit a few snags along the way -- nobody is writing off this new technology. According to analysts, it's two to three generations ahead of current industry capabilities. Today, the smallest transistors built by TI, for example, measure 0.18 micron, and most of those used in commercial products are built on a scale of 0.25 micron or above. To be sure, this chip's horsepower could provide yet another evolutionary step forward in the world of electronics and computing.

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