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TI claims chip manufacturing coup

Researchers claim to have developed technology that will allow them to pack 400 million transistors onto a single chip.

Researchers at Texas Instruments claimed they have developed chip manufacturing technology that will allow them to pack as many as 400 million transistors--the basic building blocks of a processor--onto a single chip the size of a fingernail and run them at breaktaking speeds.

These densely packed chips could reach clock speeds of 1 gigahertz. These would also consume less power, making them ideal for portable and handheld devices such as cell phones.

By contrast, today's commonly used processors for desktop PCs have up to 7.5 million transistors and run at up to 450 MHz.

In general, advanced production techniques allow more transistors to be crammed into the same amount of real estate, thereby increasing the horsepower of the chip. Also, as the transistors are pushed closer together, this increases a chip's speed because the distance between the transistors is reduced.

Using comparable measurement methods to today's processors, the TI chips will be made on a 0.1 micron process, while today PC processors are made using the "fatter" 0.25-micron process by companies such as Intel. Next year a select few will introduce 0.18-micron process chips.

TI says the new manufacturing techniques will allow the development of some unique applications, such as a hearing aide that could be implanted in the inner ear, or wireless telephones that have video and data capabilities.

Among the more pragmatic computing possibilities: hard disk drives that are faster and cheaper. Also, the UltraSparc processors from Sun Microsystems, which TI manufactures for Sun, should see clock speed gains as a result of the new technology.

A TI spokesperson said products using the advanced manufacturing process could be available as soon as 2001. Analysts were cautiously optimistic about the announcement.

"This is clearly encouraging for the future of the chip industry," said Fred Zieber, president of San Jose-based Pathfinder Research, while noting that in lab conditions, researchers have made smaller transistors but haven't yet developed the manufacturing equipment needed for large scale production of chips. He hypothesized that TI has tweaked current manufacturing equipment to enable production of the 0.07 micron transistors.

Indeed, the new manufacturing process would place TI ahead of industry predictions--the U.S.Semiconductor Industry Association estimates companies won't be making chips with 0.13 micron features until the year 2003, for instance.

While the company declined to comment fully on the details of its advances, TI is expected to make the chips using copper. Copper conducts electricity better than aluminum, the metal traditionally used for circuitry on microprocessors, and thus is expected to become the metal of choice for microprocessor circuits as chips get smaller and faster. Copper interconnects allow the chip size to be reduced while speed and complexity is increased.

TI has also developed technology for creating a layer of insulation around the tiny wires of a chip that reduces harmful electrical effects that sap energy and hinder performance that could be used in making its minutest of transistors.