IBM is tapping into its computing know-how to get to the next-generation 22-nanometer chip technology.
Generally, the smaller the geometries, the faster and more power efficient the chip becomes. Both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are moving their processor lines from 65-nanometer to 45-nanometer technology. (AMD, which does joint chip R&D with IBM, is slated to begin doing this in the fourth quarter.)
After 45nm, comes 32nm, which doesn't present any great manufacturing process hurdles. But 22nm is a different story. And IBM is trying to lead the way--ahead of Intel.
At its most basic, photolithography--the conventional process for making semiconductor chips--means using a mask to cast a shadow onto a light-sensitive material called a resist. Based on this, the circuits are then "printed." This is where 22nm is hitting a wall. "Once the wavelength of light becomes comparable to the size of the thing you're trying to print, things break down," said Subu Iyer, an IBM distinguished engineer. The challenge is to use a light wavelength of 193 nanometers because "extreme ultraviolet" radiation is still impractical.
"In straightforward physics (22nm) is kind of a tall order," said Iyer. IBM's new computational-intensive method takes the circuits that designers lay out and transforms them into a pattern on the mask that allows IBM to print the 22-nanometer features with 193-nanometer light, he said.
"There's a tremendous amount of computation involved in taking that design data and converting it to a mask which will illuminate with the right kind of illumination," Iyer said. "We build very fast computers. So, it's a matter of taking advantage of these very high-performance computers and doing these computationally intensive things."
"If I had x-rays, I would be able to print this in a jiffy. Problem is, that technology doesn't exist. And it doesn't look like it will exist in time for 22 nanometers," according to Iyer. "This allows us to do it not using very, very advanced lithography tools, but combining our existing tools with a computationally intensive technique."
"The challenge is to ensure that the diffraction pattern (from the light) that is produced is basically the pattern you want to print," he said.
The Computational Scaling initiative will include support from several of IBM's partners, including Mentor Graphics and Toppan Printing.
The initiative is also linked to IBM's cloud computing strategy, which offers scalable, more energy-efficient Web services. Through cloud computing, customers can access these services "in a highly flexible and open environment," according to IBM.