Chipping in for smoothness

Researchers discover ways to facilitate flawless flow of information through chips of the future

Published: Friday 15 November 1996

computer scientists are on the verge of producing chips that hold 1,000 times more information and are 10 times quicker than today's devices. The new generation of superchips could vastly enhance the processing power of computers, enabling devices to be commanded by voice and hold as much information as the largest reference libraries.

Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, us -- working on behalf of the government and nine companies including Intel and at&t -- have recently overcome two of the biggest obstacles holding back the development of futuristic chips. They have found ways to measure the accuracy of the tiny channels -- 0.1 microns wide -- along which information would flow, and have also discovered a way of lining for these avenues so that data can flow accurately.

At such microscopic levels, defects on a chip's coating could corrupt information and render it unreadable for the computer's processor. According to Andrew Hawryluk, deputy project manager at the laboratory's advanced microtechnology department, the earlier technology was not sufficiently advanced to coat a chip's circuitry with smooth walls. Chips are coated by a technique known as magnetron sputtering which basically involves bombarding a chip with metallic particles that stack up and form a coating.

Hawryluk's team has revealed the process they believe will enable information to travel through superchips without becoming corrupted by microscopic flaws. It is called ion-beam sputtering. Ions are positively charged -- so a negative charge is placed on the other side of the chip and the metallic coating materials are attracted to it. Thus, a process for smooth coating is set up. To measure the accuracy of such minute circuitry, a microscope has been developed that is 20 times more powerful than those commonly used by chip manufacturers. The new process provides a 300,000-fold reduction in faults over conventional systems.

The Lawrence Livermore team believes the production process could be passed on to industry before the end of the decade. The first companies to receive it will be the optic and machine manufacturers who will make new etching equipment for Intel and advanced micro devices.

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