IBM Ramps Up Chips Speed by Cooling It Down

Big Blue teams with Georgia Tech researchers to crank a SiGe chip to 500GHz by freezing it to minus 451 degrees.

Researchers at IBM and the Georgia Tech have gotten a SiGe—or silicon-germanium—chip to run at 500GHz by freezing it to minus 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

The chip speed is a record for silicon-based processors and is 250 times faster than what is normally found in chips in cell phones, which run at about 2GHz. Processors in servers and PCs run at up to 3.8GHz.

The experiments, announced June 20, was part of a larger project designed to test the speed limits of SiGe devices, which run faster at lower temperatures. According to the researchers, the chips used in the project—prototypes of fourth-generation SiGe technology developed by IBM on a 200-millimeter wafer—run at about 350GHz at room temperature.

A temperature of minus 451 degrees is normally only found in outer space, though it can be re-created on Earth through the use of such materials as liquid helium. According to IBM, absolute zero—the coldest possible temperature in nature—is at minus 459.67 degrees.

SiGe chips are the same as standard silicon chips in many respects, though they also have germanium in them to improve performance and power efficiency. Theyre used in cell phones and other communication devices.

According to the IBM and Georgia Tech researchers, SiGe chips running at very high frequencies have potential uses in such areas as defense, space exploration and remote sensing.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said users shouldnt expect to see such chips in commercial devices anytime soon.

"Its not the sort of thing theyre going to see in a desktop or laptop in the next three years," said King, in Hayward, Calif.

Still, whats impressive is that IBM continues to test and improve its processors using methods other than simply increasing the number of transistors. The Armonk, N.Y., company also continues to use science to enhance its computer technology, King said.

/zimages/4/28571.gifIntel researchers show how using simple processor cores can present a radically different approach to building processors. Click here to read more.

IBM has been looking at ways of improving its processor technology for years, he said. The company was the first to look to multicore chip technology. "They saw early on the limits to performance improvements by squeezing more microtransistors onto a single chip," King said. Now, all chip makers, from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices to Sun Microsystems, are pursuing multicore chip strategies.

It also was IBM that introduced the first SiGe technology. IBM first announced it in 1989 and came out with the first standard, high-volume SiGe chips in 1998. Since then, the company has shipped hundreds of millions of SiGe chips, according to IBM.

"You get a good thing and keep working with it, and some good things can happen over time," King said.

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