RealTime IT News

IBM Takes Nano Chip Design for a 'Spin'

IBM is again taking a giant bet on very small devices with its latest advances in nanotechnology (devices measured in increments of one-billionth of a meter).

The Armonk, N.Y., company today said it is collaborating with Stanford University on high-performance, low-power components to help build smaller and faster electronic devices. The partners said their latest research in the field of "spintronics" could lead to reconfigurable logic devices, room-temperature superconductors and quantum computers in the next five years.

The parties are expected to formalize their partnership at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., with the launch of the IBM-Stanford Spintronic Science and Applications Center (SpinAps, for short).

IBM has been at the forefront of nanotech development. The company's work with carbon nanotube logic circuits and molecular electronics, for example, is aimed at maintaining its commercial edge through the release of more powerful computers five, 10 or 15 years into the future.

What's different about IBM is its resources. Most other nanotech initiatives and companies, even the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative's $600 million budget, pale in comparison. IBM has, and is, investing billions in nano. Its latest chip plant in East Fishkill, N.Y., cost $2.5 billion and lets the company make chips in the sub-micron range. The current state-of-the-art for semiconductors is 90-nm with much progress being made in chips produced at the 65-nm, 45-nm and 30-nm level.

Although IBM is not working in all areas of nanotech, the company is watching the entire industry carefully. It recently formed a group to see where IBM's nano initiatives can contribute to the life sciences field.

Spintronics is an exciting possibility, according to IBM, because controlling the spin -- or magnetic orientation -- of electrons within tiny structures made of ultra-thin layers can produce such advantageous properties as low-power switching and non-volatile information storage.

"SpinAps researchers will work to create breakthroughs that could revolutionize the electronics industry, just as the transistor did 50 years ago," Dr. Robert Morris, director of IBM's Almaden Research Center, said in a statement.

IBM has already helped launch the first mass-produced spintronic device for the hard-disk drive industry. Introduced in 1997, the giant magnetoresistive (GMR) head, developed at the IBM Almaden lab, is a super-sensitive magnetic-field sensor that allowed data density rates to increase by 40 times their previous levels.

Another multi-layered spintronic structure is at the heart of the high-speed, non-volatile magnetic random access memory (MRAM), currently being developed by a handful of companies including MRAM, has been called "the ideal memory," potentially combining the density of DRAM with the speed of SRAM and non-volatility of flash memory or disk. Current MRAM licensees include Motorola, Honeywell, Cypress Semiconductor, The SpinAps Center will involve about a half-dozen Stanford professors, a similar number of IBM scientists, as well as graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and visiting faculty.

Initial funding will come from IBM and Stanford. Participating scientists' research projects are also funded by agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

IBM Fellow Dr. Stuart Parkin and Stanford professors Dr. James S. Harris (Electrical Engineering, Applied Physics and Materials Science) and Dr. Shoucheng Zhang (Physics and Applied Physics) will direct the center.