IBM has turned to nature to make chips run faster and consume less energy.
The company has used the natural pattern-creating process that forms seashells, snowflakes and enamel on teeth to form trillions of holes to create insulating vacuums around the miles of wires packed onto computer chips.
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In chips using the new insulation technique, IBM researchers have found that electrical signals can flow 35% faster and that 15% less energy is used.
This new form of insulation, commonly referred to as “airgaps” by scientists, is a misnomer, said IBM, as the gaps are actually a vacuum.
A vacuum is believed to be the ultimate insulator for what is known as wiring capacitance, which occurs when two conductors - in this case adjacent wires on a chip - sap or siphon electrical energy from one another, generating undesirable heat and slowing the speed at which data can move through a chip.
Until now, chip designers often were forced to fight capacitance issues by pushing ever more power through chips, creating, in the process, a range of other problems.
They have also used insulators with better insulating capability, but these insulators have become fragile as chip features get smaller and smaller, and their insulating properties do not compare to those of a vacuum.
The self-assembly process has already been integrated with IBM's manufacturing line in East Fishkill, New York, and is expected to be fully incorporated into IBM’s manufacturing lines and used in chips in 2009.
The chips will be used in IBM's server product lines and in purpose-built lines for other companies.
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