IBM touts new chipmaking method

Company says it found way to alter silicon's physical properties in ways that yield a faster, smaller chip.

IBM said on Monday it had developed new chipmaking methods that will allow its upcoming Power6 computer processor to run twice as fast as current versions.

Instead of just making transistors smaller, IBM came up with a process to alter how silicon behaves by placing a layer of insulator underneath a layer of silicon less than 500 atoms thick, said Bernard Meyerson, chief technologist of IBM's technology group.

"You literally can squeeze silicon, and thereby give it properties to make it faster. The thing that is making it run faster is not just that it's smaller but because you're changing its basic physical properties," Meyerson told Reuters in an interview.

IBM's advances mean its Power6 chip, due in the middle of 2007, will run at speeds between 4 and 5 gigahertz, at least double the speed of current Power chips found in server computers that run corporate networks, Meyerson said.

The Power6 chip will compete against offerings from IBM rivals such as Intel, and Sun Microsystems.

Miniaturization has allowed chipmakers to make chips faster by cramming more transistors on a single slice of silicon, to the point where high-end processors have hundreds of millions of transistors.

But the process also tends to make chips run hotter, and engineers have been trying to figure out how to keep shrinking chips down while avoiding having them fry their own circuitry.

The higher speed of the Power6 will be achieved with existing chip manufacturing technology that etches transistors only 65 nanometers wide, several hundred times smaller than a human blood cell.

The new chip should also use less power, due in part to what Meyerson called "holistic design."

"You literally tune the system from the atoms and molecules to the software at the other end to get the maximum possible benefits," Meyerson said.

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