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February - 2003 - issue > Cover Feature

SiGe: More Zip Per Chip

Pradeep Shankar
Thursday, January 30, 2003
Pradeep Shankar
EVEN AS THE PC CHIP MAKERS INTEL AND AMD are engaged in the so-called gigahertz wars, focus is now beginning to move away from the performance of chips inside individual PCs toward the performance of the chips inside communications devices.

And paving the way for a new class of communication chips is IBM's silicon germanium (SiGe) chip-making technology. Last year, IBM created the world's fastest silicon-based transistor, which operates at a speed of 350Ghz. The transistor, built using the SiGe technology, is said to be nearly 300% faster than today's devices, and 65% faster than previously reported ICs. The key to these fantastic speeds isn't the usual smaller transistors and thinner circuit lines, which have long been the main drivers of ever-increasing chip speed. In fact, this record-setting chip has relatively fat 0.13-micron-wide transistors and lines—sizes that date back to the late 1990s. Instead of smaller lines, the chip’s blistering speed stems from a new silicon-and-germanium recipe.

IBM began developing SiGe materials two decades ago, when industry pundits were warning that pure-silicon chips would top out in the 1990s. IBM is now making the technology, available to top-tier communications equipment makers to help increase the speed of today’s networks.

Communications equipment makers have adopted the SiGe technology for a variety of applications, including RF components in cellular handsets, Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) chipsets, high-speed test and measurement equipment, and chipsets for optical data transmission systems. Chipmakers such as Agere, Atmel, Conexant, Infineon, Maxim, Motorola, Intel and Texas Instruments have entered the SiGe market, thus increasing the competition with IBM.

However, IBM claims it is still far ahead of the competition-both in current and future processes, and its new 350 GHz transistor leapfrogs the competition. While many companies are introducing their first versions, IBM is in the fifth generation of SiGe technology. However, SiGe technology is suitable only for small chips (communication chips) that have several hundred or a few thousand transistors as compared to several million transistors in PC chips.

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