IBM, Xilinx Making Microscopic Chips

IBM and Xilinx Monday announced what they say is a major step toward production of the world’s first 90-nanometer (nm) chip. To put things in perspective, 90nm is less than 1/1,000th the width of a human hair.

Based on their partnership announced earlier this year, IBM will use copper-based 90nm semiconductor manufacturing to tap out a new Xilinx field programmable gate array (FPGA) chip design. The new chip is slated for production in IBM’s new 300mm chip fab in East Fishkill, N.Y. The companies said the new chips would be ramping up in capacity throughout 2003.

The chips are expected to go head-to-head with similar 90nm processors made by Intel . But, while Intel’s 90nm process is based on strained silicon technology, IBM uses partially depleted silicon-on-insulator (SOI).

Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM also said the new chips are also unique because they are the first to take advantage of copper interconnects and low-k dielectric insulation on 300mm wafers. Measuring 12 inches, the 300mm wafers are gaining popularity within the semiconductor sector because they offer more product for less price.

“What we have just accomplished with Xilinx is testament to the fact that we’ve got the most advanced semiconductor technology, chip design and manufacturing capabilities in the industry,” said IBM Microelectronics Division general manager Michel Mayer. “Ultimately, this benefits our foundry customers because they leverage our expertise to get their high-performance chips to market as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

The agreement marks the first time IBM’s $5 billion semiconductor division would manufacture high-volume parts for a foundry customer using processes normally set aside for high-end microprocessors, custom chips and memory products. IBM is currently manufacturing Xilinx’s flagship VirtexX-II Pro semiconductor products using a 130nm process on 200mm wafers at IBM facilities in Burlington, Vt. and on 300mm wafers at facilities in East Fishkill, N.Y.

In June 2002, the companies announced a second technology agreement under which IBM is licensing FPGA technology from Xilinx for use in Big Blue’s Cu-08 application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) products.

The race to make smaller semiconductors heated up last week in San Francisco at the International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM). IBM Research and IBM Microelectronics said they have collaborated on reducing the thickness of SOI wafers, producing the world’s smallest working silicon transistor — 6 nanometers (billionths of a meter) in length, one-tenth the size of today’s state-of-the-art production products.

Despite silicon layers only 4 to 8 nanometers thick, IBM’s new gate transistor retains proper turn-on and -off behavior. In the future, IBM says, the advance could fit 100 times more transistors into a computer chip than is possible today.

Not to be outdone, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) said its researchers have teamed with the University of California at Berkeley to create slightly larger but radically different devices — Fin Field Effect Transistors (FinFETs) that use a single vertical silicon “fin” to create two gates instead of the usual one, effectively doubling the current that can be sent through the transistor and improving its switching characteristics.

Size issues aside, IBM is using its new fab to foster its “gun-for-hire” strategy by establishing new chipmaking relationships. The company has said the majority of the work coming from its East Fishkill plant will be for making chips for other companies. The semiconductor division is also expected to maintain production of its proprietary PowerPC microprocessors and other customized chips.

Most recently, Big Blue and Singapore-based Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing said they would jointly develop 90nm and 65nm logic processes for foundry chip production on 300-millimeter silicon wafers. The two companies also have the option to extend the agreement to include 45nm technology.

And even though global sales of semiconductors fell 30 percent in 2001 to about $140 billion and are seen rising only 1 or 2 percent this year, IBM says it still feels optimistic about 2003.

IBM CFO John Joyce recently told Reuters that the company’s Microelectronics division is expecting profits for both this quarter and all of 2003.

Last week, chip makers Intel and AMD said their fourth-quarter sales would also beat analyst’s expectations.

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