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IBM's New Semiconductor Technique

IBM introduced a new technique it claims will allow it to make semiconductors that can take care of themselves.

Using a patented technology called "eFUSE," the tech giant said it can combine software algorithms with microscopic electrical fuses to produce chips that can automatically regulate their own quality, performance and power consumption without help from human operators. The technology, also referred to as chip morphing, is currently in production at IBM's East Fishkill, N.Y., and Burlington, Vt., facilities.

"eFUSE reroutes chip logic, much the way highway traffic patterns can be altered by opening and closing new lanes," Bernard Meyerson, IBM fellow, vice president and chief technologist, said in a statement.

eFUSE uses the phenomena of "electromigration," according to IBM researchers. This phenomena has traditionally been damaging to chip performance and was historically avoided. IBM's scientists said they looked at how to harness electromigration and uses it to program a fuse without damaging other parts of the chip. Previously, development of on-chip fuse technology often involved rupturing fuses.

But IBM says the morphing technology is a success. If eFUSE detects an imperfection, it "instinctively" initiates corrective actions by tripping inexpensive, simple electrical fuses that are designed into the chip. The fuses help the chip control individual circuit speed to manage power consumption and repair unexpected flaws.

If the technology detects that the chip is malfunctioning because individual circuits are running too fast or too slow, it can power, or "throttle down," these circuits or speed them up by controlling the appropriate local voltage.

Researchers with IBM also said the morphing technology is beneficial for custom-design chips that need to change based on end-user or software demand. The company said the eFUSE technology can also be repeated several times -- even after the chip has been packaged and shipped in a product, making it a good purchase for IBM's partners.

While IBM said the technology could one day end up in cell phones, consumer electronics and other products, the company is planning to debut the technology in all of its 90-nanometer process semiconductors and embedded DRAM technology. In a statement late last week, IBM said it is currently developing the technology for its Power Architecture, including POWER5 and other chips used in IBM eServer systems, as well as low-power IBM silicon germanium (SiGe) chips.

The company also said its eFUSE is technology independent and does not require the introduction of new materials, tools or processes. Because of that, IBM said it also plans to license the technology to its foundry customers.

IBM said it has about a dozen patents in all invested in its eFUSE technology. The company has been at the forefront with many semiconductor advances, having been first to use more power-efficient copper wiring in place of aluminum and faster silicon on insulator (SOI) and silicon germanium transistors.