IBM paves way to 100GHz chips

New super-fast transistors are not the fastest on the planet, but because they are silicon-based they can be made using standard production techniques

As expected, IBM today announced the world's fastest silicon-based transistor, paving the way to speeds five times faster than at present. The device isn't the fastest transistor in the world, but it does use standard production techniques -- other devices, such as gallium arsenide (GaAs) transistors, are swifter but need specialist design and production tools.

The transistor worked at speeds up to 210 GHz, while using only a milliamp of current: commercial communication devices running at 100 GHz are expected in the next two years, much sooner than expected.

IBM's transistor is based on a mixture of silicon and germanium, another semiconductor. Ironically, germanium was the very first material used to make transistors, but was sensitive to heat and made very slow devices.

The industry moved to silicon as quickly as it could, discarding germanium and concentrating on GaAs -- in which electrons travel up to six times faster -- as the next stage in speedy design. Over the years, however, the high cost and difficult nature of gallium arsenide devices has kept them in niche markets, while improvements in silicon design have let it keep pace with the market.

Silicon-germanium layers in IBM's transistor design can be made thinner than ordinary silicon, resulting in a shorter path for signals to travel. This means they can be switched more quickly than silicon alone. GaAs will remain the leader for absolute speed, but because the silicon-germanium transistors are much more conventional in design, production and use they'll be much easier to make and sell.

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