IBM pushes 32-nanometer chips with BASF deal

IBM and BASF launch effort to shrink chip feature sizes from 45 to 32 nanometers

IBM will work with the German chemical company BASF Group to produce a new generation of chips with feature sizes of 32 nanometers, the companies said Friday.

The partnership will produce chips scheduled to reach the market in 2010, IBM said. Chips with circuits and other features of 32nm use less electricity and have smaller dimensions than chips built with 45nm or 60nm, allowing vendors of smartphones, notebook PCs and other electronics to pack more processing power in their products.

The two companies hope to create an improved approach to using chemicals in lithography, a method of manufacturing chips by stacking layers of different materials like a cake, then etching away part of each layer to create the tiny components of a microprocessor. Work will begin immediately at IBM's facility in New York, and at BASF's headquarters in Ludwigshafen, Germany, said Ronald Goldblatt, a distinguished engineer and senior manager at IBM Research.

BASF already supplies chemicals to many chip makers, but under the new partnership it will also share its employees and expertise with IBM. Each company will play to its strengths, with most of the synthesis and testing happening at BASF, while prototyping and application work at IBM, Goldblatt said. He declined to comment on whether the deal involved any exchange of money.

IBM plans to use the new chemicals across its entire range of products, which include its Power6 high-end server chip announced on May 21, a variety of ASICs (application specific integrated circuits) for telephony backbone platforms, and its Cell Broadband Engine chip used to process high-end graphics data in gaming consoles including Sony Computer Entertainment's PlayStation 3, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Nintendo's Wii.

The BASF deal marks an expansion of IBM's strategy of collaborating with partners to design new chips instead of doing all the work itself. IBM used the same approach when it created the Cell chip by collaborating with Sony and Toshiba. And on May 23, IBM said it would collaborate with a larger group of chip makers on 32nm semiconductor production technologies. That group includes Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing, Freescale Semiconductor, Infineon Technologies and Samsung Electronics.

IBM is also using the new deal to ratchet up competition with Intel, which plans to bring its own 32-nm architecture chips to market by 2009. The two companies have been locked in an increasingly public race to design faster chips since they both picked the same day in January to issue news releases about advances in "high-k metal gate" technology. That approach employs rare materials to construct smaller, more efficient transistors than the silicon dioxide used in modern chips.

Intel insists it leads the industry in that race, with plans to use the new technique to launch its 45nm "Penryn" chip in the fourth quarter of 2007, while IBM and its partner Advanced Micro Devices don't plan to sell 45nm chips until the middle of 2008. Texas Instruments entered the contest as well on June 13, announcing a plan to use high-k materials in 45nm chips, also beginning production in the middle of 2008.

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