Researchers at Texas Instruments have combined copper wiring with an insulating material they say will result in chips that are 10 times faster and use much less power than today's most powerful chips.
Copper wiring is the newest darling of microprocessor manufacture, because it conducts electricity better than aluminum, which has predominated. But new wiring materials require new insulation, and TI says its choice of an insulating substance called xerogel will yield significant performance results.
"We're announcing a technological breakthrough that it's possible to combine copper and xerogel to get the ultimate in performance," says Robert Havemann, manager of advanced interconnect development at TI.
Like ordinary telephone wires, chips' circuitry must be insulated to communicate their signals and to prevent "cross-talk," the inadvertent coupling of nearby signals, akin to two phone conversations being linked together.
Xerogel is a good choice because it is a low-k material, which is a measure of its insulating capacity. Xerogel is made of microscopic glass bubbles containing air, and air is the best known insulator and has the lowest k of all, Havemann said.
Other chip makers are well into their exploration of copper-circuited chips, with Motorola Inc. pledging commercial availability next September and IBM imposing a time-frame of five years for all of its chips to be built using IBM's copper technology, Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor 7S (CMOS). But IBM and Motorola are using silicon dioxide for their insulating material, which is not as low-k as xerogel, according to TI.
"Ultimately everyone will end up at copper and a low-k material," but TI, along with Sematech Inc., is one of the first to demonstrate the two substances together, said Ron Dornseif, an analyst with Dataquest Inc.
"This is excellent," Dornseif said of TI's demonstration. "The more people who put a stake in the ground as to what they're going to do ... the more the equipment makers can condense around them."
Other analysts were equally enthusiastic at TI's combining of copper circuitry with a low-k substance like xerogen.
"It's pretty fundamental, it's heralding a new era in technology," said G. Dan Hutcheson, president of VLSI Research Inc. in San Jose, California. "You can bet that tomorrow morning in the boards of semiconductor companies around the world there's going to be a lot of meetings around this announcement."
Texas Instruments Inc., in Dallas, Texas, can be reached at +1-972-995-2011 or at http://www.ti.com/.