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AMD eyes copper, 1-GHz chip

Under a patent licensing agreement with Motorola, AMD will have access to Motorola's copper chip interconnect technology.

Motorola's chip division and Advanced Micro Devices detailed a technology-sharing alliance today that will give AMD the ability to make copper-based microprocessors and give Motorola needed components to build "system-on-a-chip" parts for intelligent devices.

AMD also indicated that it is planning to push its next-generation K7 processor up to a speed of 1 GHz (1,000 MHz) in the year 2000. Copper will first appear on AMD's K7 at that time.

"Such a chip would be the fastest [Intel]-compatible processor, at least in terms of raw clock speed, available," according to the Microprocessor Report's Jim Turley in a report released today.

Under terms of the seven-year patent licensing deal between the two companies, AMD will have access to Motorola's copper interconnect technology, which will allow AMD to shift from chips using aluminum circuit interconnections, and other microprocessor manufacturing technology.

Motorola in turn will receive the rights to AMD's flash memory technology. Unlike standard memory, flash memory retains data after power is shut off. It is used in digital cameras and similar devices.

The alliance will provide technical and financial benefits for both companies. With Motorola's help, AMD will potentially be able to produce microprocessors based around copper before rival Intel, without having to directly incur the billions in research and development costs that would otherwise be required for the leap forward.

For Motorola, the alliance is the latest in a string of moves designed to offset losses from a slumping chip business owing to weak demand and pricing pressures in the Asian markets as well as pave the way for the company to move deeper into the intelligent appliance market. Last week, the company purchased Starfish Software, which makes operating systems for Internet-enabled devices. Motorola is expected to propel Starfish's technology into a wide variety of devices.

Chips using copper rather than aluminum to connect the circuits on microprocessors are expected to be smaller and faster than current microprocessors because of the physical properties of copper. Analysts expect that semiconductor manufacturers will eventually make the transition because copper conducts electricity better than aluminum, the metal traditionally used for circuitry on microprocessors, thereby allowing the chip size to be reduced while increasing speed and sophistication.

While copper technology will improve performance on chips made under the upcoming 0.18-micron manufacturing process, the greater benefit is not expected to occur until the subsequent 0.13-micron manufacturing process, said Linley Gwennap, editor-in-chief of The Microprocessor Report.

AMD's Dresden, Germany, fabrication facility, now under construction, will start to produce samples of copper chips next year and produce copper chips in volume by 2000.

"Dresden is being built for copper interconnect technology," AMD chief executive Jerry Sanders said in a conference call last week. "We will have copper [processors] in volume in the year 2000."

With AMD's flash memory technology, Motorola will be in position to develop integrated chip solutions that can serve as fully functioning nerve centers for Internet phones, personal digital assistants, or other smart communication devices.

"System-level design incorporates software and hardware technology, methodology and industry-based reuse standards to combine blocks of IP onto a single chip or substrate," said Hector de J. Ruiz, president of Motorola's Semiconductor Products Sector, in a prepared statement. "This offers developers flexibility, performance, cost, and time-to-market benefits."

The shift toward these devices will also help to stem a series of semiconductor losses. For example, Motorola and Lucent Technologies recently teamed up to develop DSPs (digital signal processors) at a new design center in the Atlanta area.

Turning Dresden into a plant for copper chips may also quell some of the free-floating anxiety surrounding the opening of the facility. Currently, AMD has more factory capacity than it uses, adding to bottom-line costs, various sources say. Additional capacity is also coming from IBM: That company is slated to produce K6 chips later this year. Making copper chips could improve AMD's bottom line if it can produce enough of these high-performance chips and sell them at a premium over its other products.

Copper will first appear on AMD's next chip generation, the K7 in 2000. AMD has also set a goal of having those chips run at 1GHz. The first K7 chips chip will be previewed this fall and start to ship in volume in the first half of 1999. The initial K7 chips will not use copper interconnects.

IBM has been the lead advocate for adopting copper as a metal for processor circuitry. IBM announced its efforts in copper late last year. The first copper interconnect chips are due from the company later this year.

Interestingly enough, Intel has so far stayed out of the race for copper, according to Gwennap. Right now, the risk-reward ratio is too great for the company, he speculated. Intel's larger market share means that any mistake in the shift could result in millions in losses.

While Intel is undoubtedly performing research on copper interconnect circuitry, the company appears to be concentrating more on low capacitance "di-electric" technology, which improves how the materials surrounding the circuits, rather than the circuits themselves, perform. Essentially, capacity is reduced between the layers in a chip.

"They are changing the stuff between the metal, not the metal itself," he said.