Taking a page from the natural process by which patterns are formed in nature on seashells and snowflakes, IBM announced on May 3 its ability to form trillions of holes to create insulating vacuums around the miles of nano-scale wires packed next to each other inside each computer chip. The company says it's the first-ever application of a breakthrough self-assembling nanotechnology to conventional chip manufacturing.
IBM says testing in its labs have proven that the electrical signals on the chips can flow 35% faster, or the chips can consume 15% less energy compared to the most advanced chips using conventional techniques.
"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."
The self-assembly process already has been integrated with IBM's manufacturing line in East Fishkill, N.Y. and is expected to be fully incorporated in IBM's manufacturing lines and used in chips in 2009. The chips will be used in IBM's server product lines and thereafter for chips IBM builds for other companies.
The secret of the breakthrough, says IBM lies in how the scientists' moved the self-assembly process from the laboratory to a production manufacturing environment in a way that can potentially yield millions of chips with consistent, high performance results. Today, chips are manufactured with copper wiring surrounded by an insulator, which involves using a mask to create circuit patterns by beaming light through the mask and later chemically removing the parts that are not needed. The new technique to make airgaps by self-assembly skips the masking and light-etching process. Instead IBM scientists discovered the right mix of compounds, which they pour onto a silicon wafer with the wired chip patterns, then bake it.
This new technology can be incorporated into any standard CMOS manufacturing line, without disruption or new tooling according to the IBM. The self assembly process was jointly invented between IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. and the T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y.