New IBM, Georgia Tech Chip Shatters Speed Records

Georgia Tech and IBM Corp. announced Tuesday they shattered a microchip speed record in a development that could lead to advances in cell phones, radar technology and space exploration.

The chip is far from commercial availability, mainly because it only set the silicon-based speed record when it was frozen to 451 degrees F below zero (minus 268 C).

Powerful compound superconductors made from exotic, expensive materials have been clocked at faster speeds than the 500 billion cycles per second rate the Georgia Tech researchers logged.

But silicon remains the cheapest and easiest material to mass produce, and researchers say this latest development is an important step in showing the $1 trillion electronics industry the speeds that silicon-based chips could reach.

"The industry always wants more. People are always wondering how far silicon can take us," said John Cressler, a professor with Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "And this should show there's a lot of mileage left to go."

Cressler and a team of 22 scientists and graduate students forged the material by melding silicon chips with atoms of the element germanium, a process so fragile that even the tiniest miscue could evaporate their work.

It took the team of researchers nine months to invent a new process to clock the chip by injecting liquid helium into a probing station. Scientists can view the process through a powerful electronic microscope zoomed to see the tiny chip, only a few millionths of a meter wide.

The previous speed for a silicon-based chip, set at room temperature, was 375 gigahertz. While the Georgia Tech team's chip set a slightly lower speed at the same temperature -- about 350 gigahertz -- Cressler said there is plenty of room to improve.

"This is a first look at what the limits can be," said Cressler. "I'm hoping this record can be broken a few times."