IBM Makes Silicon Transistors Go Faster

Based on silicon germanium technology, IBM has developed a new transistor that is far thinner than those currently available on the market. The innovation, which has the capability of reaching a speed of 210GHz on 1 milliamp of electrical current, is being touted by IBM as the fastest silicon-based transistor in the world.

According to IBM, the new transistor will allow communications chips to reach speeds of 100GHz within two years, which is five times faster and four years sooner than original predictions.

``Just as aircraft were once believed incapable of breaking an imaginary 'sound barrier', silicon-based transistors were once thought incapable of breaking a 200GHz speed barrier,'' said Bernard Meyerson, IBM Fellow and vice president of IBM’s communications research and development center in a statement. ``Makers of high performance electronics like networking gear are no longer forced to use chips made of exotic and expensive materials to reach these speeds. Silicon's future is safe as the preferred medium for chip-making.''

As the demand for speed in the technology industry continues to grow, chip makers have been using materials more expensive than silicon to build faster processors. However, should IBM actually be able to reach a speed of 210GHz with its silicon-based transistor, the need to adopt such materials to support increased processing speed would be eliminated.

Transistor speeds are largely determined by how quickly electricity passes through them. This is dependent on the material the transistor is made of and the distance electricity must travel through it. Standard transistors are made of ordinary silicon. In 1989, IBM introduced an improvement to the basic silicon material by adding germanium to speed the electrical flow, which improved performance and reduced power consumption. With this latest achievement, IBM is combining the use of the silicon germanium material with an improved transistor design that shortens the electrical path to speed up the device.

In standard transistors, electricity travels horizontally, so shortening the path requires that the transistor be made thinner -- an increasingly difficult task with diminishing returns using today's chip manufacturing techniques. In the IBM device electrical flow is vertical. So, by thinning the silicon germanium layer, the path of electrical flow is shortened and performance is improved.

IBM is currently working with a number of communications companies to incorporate silicon germanium into an array of products, using its design centers in Waltham, Mass., East Fishkill, N.Y. and Encinitas, Calif. in the United States, as well as in LaGaude, France.

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