IBM, Toshiba and Sony tie on SOI chip development

IBM Corp., Sony Corp., Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI) and Toshiba Corp. have agreed to work together on development of advanced semiconductor manufacturing technology that is expected to enable a new generation of computer chips several magnitudes more powerful that those in use today, they said Tuesday.

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 nanometers 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 nanometers, or 0.1 micron, and then progress to 70 nanometers (0.07 micron) and eventually 50 nanometers (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. At the levels engineers are researching, they are getting close to hitting physical boundaries and so research and development costs are rising. For this reason, many chip makers have begun pooling resources and working together on advanced production technologies.

Tuesday's announcement is linked to one made just over a year ago by Toshiba, SCEI and IBM. In March 2001, 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 $400 million 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. "Today we are announcing a deal to develop semiconductor manufacturing technology. In order to realize 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 center in East Fishkill, New York, while the Cell microprocessor development work is taking place in Austin, Texas, said Yoshiko Furusawa, a spokeswoman for SCEI.

The Cell microprocessor is expected to be used in a range of future products and its design is being guided by the application requirements of Sony, according to the partners. The chip is expected to be produced in East Fishkill, where a "significant portion" of IBM's yet-to-be-completed 300-millimeter wafer production line will be devoted to the processor.

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