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IBM Advance To Make More Energy-Efficient Chips Possible

Data centers are big energy users, and manufacturers like Sun and IBM have been responding with more energy-efficient technologies. Today IBM announced the application of self-assembling nanotechnology to conventional chip manufacturing, borrowing a process from nature to build the next generation computer chips. The chips will use less energy, and be faster. IBM is testing microprocessors using the new technology, and expects to deploy it in manufacturing lines in 2009. (photo)

IBM Airgap Microprocessor -- IBM has created experimental versions of its latest POWER6 microprocessor using self-assembly techniques to create a vacuum between the miles of on-chip wiring. The company has moved self assembly out of the labs and into a commercial manufacturing environment. It expects to begin manufacturing servers based on airgap-technology in 2009. (IBM photo)

Self assembly is a concept scientists have been studying at IBM and in labs around the world as a potential technique to create materials useful for building computer chips.

The concept occurs in nature every day, it is how enamel is formed on our teeth, the process that creates seashells and is what transforms water into complex snowflakes. The major difference is, while the processes that occur in nature are all unique, IBM has been able to direct the self-assembly process to form trillions of holes that are all similar.

In chips running in IBM labs using the technique, the researchers have proven that the electrical signals on the chips can flow 35 percent faster, or the chips can consume 15 percent less energy compared to the most advanced chips using conventional techniques.

The energy priorities in data centers are to reduce consumption and cooling. Chips directly consume energy to run. They generate heat, which can be damaging, so data centers are continuously cooled.

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. Intel has been working with new insulating materials and making announcements since January 2007. Sun announced cooler-running chips in 2006.

The IBM technology will be used in the company's server product lines and thereafter for chips IBM builds for other companies, such as AMD.