IBM Perks Up Memory, Transistors

IBM is tweaking its semiconductor technology to help extend the performance
of its servers and enterprise PCs, the company said Monday.

The Armonk, N.Y.-based firm said it has built a component for
high-speed computer memory that is about 10 times smaller than what’s currently
on the market. The process, when perfected, could allow for more static random access
memory to be included on each chip, thereby improving its performance.

Each memory is an array of many cells. A typical SRAM cell contains six transistors
and acts as a single-bit storage element. Although not as dense, SRAM is many times
faster than dynamic random access memory . SRAM is essential for storing data
that must be quickly and frequently retrieved by the processor.

“Our ability to create critical electronic components at these small scales
ultimately means our systems will be able to tackle harder problems,” T.C. Chen,
vice president of Science and Technology at IBM Research, said in a statement.

SRAM technology is gaining in popularity because it lets computer chips like the ones
in IBM’s Power family handle demanding applications like banking and digital media. The
problem right now is that the space available for SRAM on these chips is expensive and
hard to make.

In a separate statement, IBM said it is using the element of germanium to improve
the speed and capacity of its transistors.

For the last 30 years, silicon dioxide has served as the material of choice for the
switches that process the ones and zeros of the digital world. Now, researchers with IBM
Labs have demonstrated how the element germanium can function in the part of the transistor
through which electrical current flows, also called the “channel.”

Other companies have seen the benefits of strained germanium over silicon or strained
silicon. IBM said the new technique is also promising as it is compatible with current
CMOS technology.

The company said the new technique could help ensure that chips with circuit sizes of
32 nanometers (nm) and smaller could continue to be made.

“With this work we’ve drawn from our experience introducing technologies like silicon
germanium, silicon-on-insulator and strained silicon,” Chen said. “Our focus is on the
application of that learning to develop innovative solutions for our customers.”

Within the transistor itself, IBM said its selective strained-germanium technique
actually introduces other fringe benefits. For example, the integrated circuit industry
is looking for alternatives to replace SiO2 gate oxide using “high-K” insulators.

However, introducing a new “high-K” insulator material to the existing silicon technology is found
to be especially challenging; the electrical properties of the strained germanium actually
provides an easier path for the introduction of “high-K” insulators.

Both technologies are scheduled to be discussed next week at an
International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco.

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