Super-chilled chip is super-fast
IBM, Georgia Tech researchers say semiconductor hit 500 gigahertz
By David Ho
NEW YORK BUREAU
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
NEW YORK — In an advance with implications for the future of electronics, communications and even moon exploration, Georgia Tech and IBM Corp. are announcing today that they have set a microchip speed record by applying freezing temperatures found naturally only in outer space.
By using liquid helium to cool a chip to 451 degrees below zero, researchers achieved a speed of 500 billion cycles per second, or 500 gigahertz.
It is a first for silicon-based technology and an indicator that today's low-cost microchip production techniques have a long future ahead of them.
"It's a new milestone," said John Cressler, a professor and researcher with Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Georgia Electronic Design Center.
The frozen chip's speed rating should not be confused with the gigahertz speeds popularly used to describe personal-computer performance, the researchers said. The new results refer to how fast a transistor, the smallest part of a chip, can switch an electrical current on and off in a useful way.
This will not let you "build a 500-gigahertz computer," Cressler said.
Using the technology commercially in its current form is impractical, he said. "You're not going to carry around liquid helium" to freeze the chips, he said. But the work could help improve technology requiring great processing speeds, including radar-using "adaptive cruise control" for cars and systems for handling Internet traffic, said David Ahlgren, an IBM senior engineering manager.
Other potential applications include defense electronics and remote sensing, in which information is gathered at a distance for use in medicine, oil exploration or other fields.
Just knowing such speeds are possible points the way to improved technology that works at room temperature, Cressler said.
Having much faster chips also means existing devices could operate at their current speeds but use less power, which could mean longer talk times for cell phones, Ahlgren said.
"It shows there's plenty of envelope that can still be pushed," said Dan Olds, principal analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group in Oregon.
The experiments at Georgia Tech's cryogenic lab are intended to explore the speed limits of chips made from silicon germanium, which operate faster when very cold. Germanium is added to traditional silicon technology to improve efficiency, creating chips useful for low-power, high-speed applications.
Other firms working with the technology include Austin-based Freescale Semiconductor Inc., Texas Instruments Inc. and Sony Corp.
Georgia Tech is working with NASA to build electronic systems for a return to the moon, a deeply cold place where the new chip could function.
Because of temperature extremes, NASA has to keep electronics in a "warm box," Cressler said.
What is it? Silicon germanium chilled to almost the coldest temperature possible.
How does it work? Researchers used liquid helium to cool the chip, which then performed at record speeds.