IBM accelerates silicon to more than 500 GHz

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IBM accelerates silicon to more than 500 GHz

Somers (NY) – IBM today claimed the crown for the world’s fastest chip, at least in terms of clock speed: The company said it was able to achieve frequencies “above 500 GHz” by “cryogenically freezing” the chip. And the company apparently does not want to stop there: Using silicon-germanium (SiGe) technologies, IBM is aiming for near-THz speeds.

The announcement is one result of a project run by researchers from IBM and the Georgia Institute of Technology, which intends to “explore the ultimate speed limits of silicon-germanium (SiGe) devices.” According to IBM, the material enables chips to operate at faster speeds when cooling temperatures are decreased.

At room temperature, the not-specified prototype chips topped out at about 350 GHz. Using liquid helium, the researchers went to extreme lengths to cool the circuits to 451 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (4.5 Kelvin or -268.5 degrees Celsius) and bump the clock speed to more than 500 GHz – which translates into 500 billion cycles per second. The cooling process reached near absolute zero temperature, which is defined as 0 Kelvin, -459.67 degrees Fahrenheit or -273.15 degrees Celsius.

IBM said that silicon-germanium is likely to achieve even higher speeds, which are currently believed to be able to reach 1 THz – 1000 GHz – at room temperature.

“For the first time, Georgia Tech and IBM have demonstrated that speeds of half a trillion cycles per second can be achieved in a commercial silicon-based technology, using large wafers and silicon-compatible low-cost manufacturing techniques,” said John Cressler, Byers Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a researcher in the Georgia Electronic Design Center (GEDC) at Georgia Tech. “This work redefines the upper bounds of what is possible using silicon-germanium nanotechnology techniques.” IBM believes that the research into higher-speed silicon-germanium chips will “enable a new generation of high-performance, energy efficient microprocessors.”

Chips with extreme frequencies may not make their way into PCs, but – according to IBM – may see potential applications in commercial communications systems, defense electronics, space exploration, and remote sensing. The company announced its silicon-germanium technology back in 1989 and began high-volume shipments of such chips in 1998. IBM claims that it already has shipped “hundreds of millions” of SiGe chips.