US Report: IBM chips as smooth as ice

A new technology from the labs of IBM promises to create low-power processors for laptop computers that can extend battery life by 50 percent, or alternatively, boost performance by up to 35 percent.

And, no, the technology in question is not copper.

On Monday, IBM plans to unveil a new "silicon-on-insulator" processor technology that makes the basic building block of silicon chips -- the transistor -- more efficient. It puts the company's chips a year or two ahead of the competition, said Keith Diefendorff, senior analyst with semiconductor technology watcher MicroDesign Resources. "The faster other companies exploit this, the better off they will be, in general," he said.

Like IBM's copper technology, which it unveiled last October, the new SOI process will slowly make its way into a number of IBM products.

Initially, IBM plans to use the design in its servers and supercomputers, in which the SOI technology could boost performance by up to 35 percent.

Future applications include low-power embedded chips and portable information appliances such as cell phones and personal digital assistants where the technology is expected to double battery life.

"Eventually, this is a technology that will appear universally in all electronic products," said Tom Beermann, director of communications for IBM Microelectronics.

But will it be affordable? Yes, says IBM. "This adds only a single set of steps to the process, so the added cost should be small," Beermann said.

SOI's ability to make one of two key components of silicon chips more efficient is the secret to its potential success. Silicon chips are essentially made up of two building blocks: "wires" and transistors. While IBM's previously announced copper technology improves the "wires," the SOI process improves a chip's transistors.

The process embeds an insulating layer of oxygen below the surface of a silicon wafer, the starting foundation of all silicon chips. Normally, shoving that much oxygen through the silicon surface would turn it into an unusable mess. IBM has solved that problem.

The result? The insulator makes a thin "friction-less" channel, through which electrical pulses of data can move at higher frequencies and at lower power. "This is like moving data across ice, rather than dragging it over sand," said Beermann.

The technology also gives designers a choice: any existing chip design can be used on an SOI wafer at a higher clock speed - effectively increasing performance - or at a lower power - reducing the chip's power consumption. A 400MHz PowerPC chip could be "over-clocked" to 540MHz and not require any more power. Yet, that doesn't necessarily add up as great news for laptop users.

While SOI is not a new technology - IBM has worked on it for over 15 years -- PC chip maker Intel and its rivals have not placed as much emphasis on developing the technology. "If you look at the research papers put out by Intel, they are not putting as much of a priority on SOI and copper as IBM is," said MDR's Diefendorff. "But eventually, they are going to have to do this."

While a licensing agreement is not totally out of the question, Intel rivals Advanced Micro Devices and National Semiconductor's Cyrix - both which have foundry agreements with IBM - may be able to produce such chips sooner.

Already, AMD has signed on with Motorola to produce chips based on copper technology similar to IBM's. If chips using the technology do make it laptops, however, expect them to run 35 percent faster or be able to extend battery life by 50 percent.