IBM and partners move closer to 32-NM chips

IBM is moving a step closer delivering the first of its first 32-nanometer microprocessors with an announcement that it has developed a high-k metal gate manufacturing technology, which promises to reduce the power that leaks from a chip's transistors while reducing the overall size of its chips.

The first of the 32-nanometer chips—a nanometer is one billionth of a meter—should be available in the second half of 2009, according to IBM.

The company, along with its five partners—Advanced Micro Devices, Chartered Semiconductor, Freescale, Infineon and Samsung—made the announcement Dec. 10.

IBM first announced that it was working on a high-k metal gate approach in January 2007. The announcements came about the same time Intel began delving into details about its own Hafnium-based high-k metal gate chip development technology that first appeared with its 45-nanometer line of processors called Penryn.

The concept of the high-k metal gate technology is to find a way to reduce power leakage—the electricity that is wasted while the transistors sit idle. As the transistors become smaller, chip makers have begun to look for new insulating materials to keep this power leakage from happening.

The result of an improved insulator is a better performing chip that retains the same thermal envelope as the previous generation of microprocessors.

This type of microprocessor is essential in an IT industry that finds itself moving toward more and more mobile devices, such as laptops, cell phones and PDAs. At the same time both consumers and IT customers are looking for devices that offer more computer power combined with better battery life.

According to IBM, the new technology will allow it to manufacture processors that are 50 percent smaller that the previous generation of 45-nanometer chips, while slashing power consumption by 45 percent.

So far, IBM and its partners have developed a 32-nanometer SRAM (static random access memory) cell, which is an important key in the building of the next generation of processors.

The partners also announced that they had developed Silicon-on-Insulator technology that also works at 32-nanometers, which will help in the development of high-performance applications. IBM has been testing the new design at its East Fishkill, N.Y. facility.

While Intel has revealed that it uses Hafnium as the insulator in its process, IBM declined to detail the specifics of its high-k metal gate technology.

Intel is also working toward a 32-nanometer microprocessors, which should also be available in 2009. First, the company plans to update its microarchitecture with a new family of chips called Nehalem in 2008.

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