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IBM pins dreams on tiny machines

Big Blue develops a technique for grafting microscopic machines onto chips that could be used to increase the performance and battery life of wireless devices.

IBM, long known for its computers and microchips, has developed new kinds of machines for wireless phones: microscopic frequency tuners and other devices that fit on a chip.

The company's researchers have developed a technique to graft these tiny machines onto chips. Within a few years these hybrid chips, which IBM calls "active components," could be used to increase the performance and battery life of wireless devices such as cellular phones.

The microscopic machines, technically known as Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, or MEMS, do the work of current components such as radio frequency receivers. However, they are smaller and often more efficient than those components, said Jennifer Lund, a MEMS researcher in IBM's Research division.

At the same time, IBM has created a technique with its Bi-CMOS technology, used for building chips with multiple dissimilar components, to graft the MEMS devices onto processors.

MEMS devices are a new area of focus for many chipmakers, including Intel.

Big Blue already sells a large number of radio frequency chips to cell phone makers. However, it says a single MEMS-equipped chip would be able to tackle the jobs of several chips or components by integrating them all onto a single processor.

Doing so would allow device makers to build phones using a smaller number of components, which would help reduce the phones' cost, power consumption and size.

"People would very much like to be able to do everything with one chip," Lund said.

To prove their point, IBM researchers created on-chip MEMS resonators and filters. Such MEMS devices are fairly common, but building them into a chip represents a breakthrough, Lund said.

IBM's new MEMS radio frequency resonator, for example, would use microscopic tuning forks to focus on a specific frequency and weed out others, resulting in a stronger signal and a clearer conversation, the company said.

The resonator could also be designed to address multiple frequency bands, allowing the phone to switch between bands without adding a number of extra chips.

Although its MEMS components are still in the research stage, IBM is likely to target a line of them at such wireless devices as third-generation, or 3G, phones.