Companies team up for SOI chipdevelopment

IBM, Sony, Sony Computer Entertainment (SCEI) and Toshiba have agreed to work together on development of advanced semiconductor...

IBM, Sony, Sony Computer Entertainment (SCEI) and Toshiba have agreed to work together on development of advanced semiconductor manufacturing technology that is expected to enable a new generation of computer chips far more powerful that those in use now.

The four companies will spend several hundred million dollars over the next four years on the project, which has as its goal a manufacturing system capable of etching features as small as 50 nanometres in width - approximately 2,000 times thinner than a human hair - onto a piece of silicon.

Initially, the project will work on technology that can go down to 100 nanometres, or 0.1 micron, and then progress to 70 nanometres (0.07 micron) and, eventually, 50 nanometres (0.05 micron).

IBM and other chip makers already have 0.1 micron technology, but it applies to conventional silicon wafers. The work by the four companies will focus on applying the manufacturing process to silicon on insulator (SOI) wafers, a new technology that allows transistors to switch faster than normal by reducing the build-up of electrical charge.

Each jump in manufacturing technology brings several advantages, among them higher performance, lower power consumption and lower costs.

However, making the jump is becoming an increasingly difficult and expensive job. Research and development costs are rising as engineers get closer to hitting physical boundaries.

For this reason, many chip makers have begun pooling resources and working together on advanced production technologies.

Yesterday's announcement is linked to one made just over a year ago by Toshiba, SCEI and IBM, when the three companies announced plans to work on development of an advanced microprocessor named Cell.

The chip will be more powerful than IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer and it is hoped it will be complete when the $400m (£278m) project finishes in four years' time.

"The previous announcement with Sony and IBM was joint development of a next-generation processor," said Kenichi Sugiyama, a spokesman for Toshiba.

"We are announcing a deal to develop semiconductor manufacturing technology. In order to realise the Cell next-generation processor, we need some kind of manufacturing technology."

The new project will be based at IBM's semiconductor research and development centre in New York, while the Cell microprocessor development work is taking Texas, said Yoshiko Furusawa, a spokeswoman for SCEI.

The Cell microprocessor is likely to be used in a range of future products and its design is being guided by the application requirements of Sony, the partners said.

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