IBM advance propels it toward 32nm chips

IBM this week announced that it has found a way to more easily and quickly move to 32 nanometer (nm) manufacturing processes.

The company, along with six research partners, said Tuesday that it has discovered a way to use a material known as high-k/metal gate to increase processor performance and lower power consumption. Mukesh Khare, senior manager for high-k/metal gate development at IBM, said the high-k/metal gate material enables the development of smaller transistors, which, in turn, enables the move to a 32nm manufacturing process.

"It's very critical to do a high-k/metal gate in 32nm," said Khare. "The whole idea of going lower is to scale the transistor down. It will enable us to get to 32nm quickly, because now we know how to make transistors smaller." One nanometer is equal to one-billionth of a meter.

He added that IBM is slated to begin 32nm production in 2009.

IBM's partners in developing the new transistor design are: Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing Ltd., Freescale Inc., Infineon Technologies AG, Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., STMicroelectronics N.V. and Toshiba Corporation.

The 32nm manufacturing process is generally seen as the next big step in the semiconductor industry because it is expected to address power leakage problems that plague larger technologies. A microprocessor built with 32nm process technology uses smaller wires and transistors than the larger 45nm and 65nm chips. The increased density allows 32nm chips to operate more efficiently than those built using predecessor processes. They're also cheaper to produce because manufacturers can pack more chips onto a silicon wafer.

IBM, much like Intel Corp. last year, is looking to change out some key materials in the transistor, the building block for the processor. IBM will be trading the traditional polysilicon for a metal gate and the silicon oxynitride will be replaced by Hi-k, which will serve as an insulator. The better insulation means there's less energy leakage, and the metal gate is a better conductor, moving the current through faster.

Intel also used high-k/metal gate material when it moved from a 65nm manufacturing technology to 45nm for the Penryn processors that started shipping late last year. At the time, Intel boasted that its own transistor redesign would extend Moore's Law by another 10 years. The 40-year-old prediction by Gordon Moore holds that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years. Prior to the Intel redesign, some observers had predicted that leakage and energy consumption issues would be significant roadblocks to keeping Moore's law intact.

IBM said that its work so far has led to performance improvements of up to 35% compared to 32nm technology at the same operating voltage. The new 32nm technology has cut power consumption by 30% to 50%, depending on the operating voltage.

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