Research project promises faster, cheaper and more reliable microchips

January 20, 2003

A project between academia and industry is aiming to spark a world electronics revolution by producing faster, cheaper and more reliable microchips.

The University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, has joined forces with Atmel, on North Tyneside in the North East of England, to create 'strained silicon' microchips, which involves adding a material called germanium to the traditional silicon used in semiconductor manufacturing.

Atmel, whose silicon chips find applications in such diverse products as smart cards and game consoles like XBOX, is playing host to a team of five Newcastle University researchers led by top microelectronics professor Anthony O'Neill.

"With this process we can create strained silicon microchips, which will be much faster or use less battery power than conventional microchips" explained Professor Anthony O'Neill, who leads a team of 5 researchers. The team, hosted by Atmel, aim to produce the world's first strained silicon technology, ahead of the competition.

"Microchips have doubled in performance every 18 months for the last 30 years, but the end of the road is now in sight, which means new innovations like strained silicon are needed at the leading edge of microelectronics," added Professor O'Neill, l who has been working with strained silicon processes for almost ten years.

Atmel Managing Director Craig McInnes said: "This is great news for the North East because it brings real, commercial research and development to the region. This will help develop the knowledge-based economy which is vital for our future.

"We have the potential here for developing a brand new process which will give us cheaper and faster chips. These will be the market leaders of tomorrow. Atmel and Newcastle University have joined forces to develop some of the world's fastest microchips."

The research and development project based at Atmel's North Tyneside semiconductor factory and involves joint working to unravel the complexities of working with a new material called strained silicon germanium.

Strained silicon on silicon-germanium has been tipped as one of the key emergent technologies for the next generation of semiconductors.

If the venture proves successful it will bring leading edge technology to the North East.

The two sides have entered in to a joint collaborative agreement and will share the fruits of the development if it proves to be a world beater.

Atmel will supply the manufacturing know-how to speed up the development.

The joint venture marks a break-though in collaborative working between Newcastle University and industry.

Prof O'Neill added: "This really is getting the research out of the lab into the commercial world. Working with Atmel will allow us to take the product from the drawing board to marketable reality a lot quicker than relying on the limited resources available to universities.

"Getting products to market quickly is vital in the fast-moving world of semiconductor manufacturing and development. If we are successful we will have a world first made on Tyneside."
Notes to editors:

1. Strained Si CMOS technology can improve current logic technology without the expense of costly re-tooling or improve bleeding edge technology beyond state-of-the-art. Potential applications include low power chips, analog and low noise RF components. It will compete on the boundaries of high performance but more costly technologies (GaAs), enabling for example all silicon mobile communications products.

It is compatible with, and complementary to, other contemporary technology innovations, e.g. copper interconnect, low-k dielectrics, metal gates, SoI, etc.

The strain increases electron mobility leading to higher current in transistors. It is achieved by aligning atoms in a silicon film of thickness 10-30 nm with an underlying thick layer of unstrained silicon germanium (SiGe) alloy.

Tensile strain in the silicon layer is engineered by the germanium concentration, which increases the separation of atoms in the alloy. Strained Si technology, aimed at the large CMOS market, differs from existing SiGe technology (in production by Atmel and others) used to engineer energy band gaps and so increase the gain of heterojunction bipolar transistors.

Particular challenges relate to the high temperatures used in CMOS processing and the limited thickness of strained silicon possible due to its strain energy.

2. For further information contact:
Ross Forbes, Atmel: + 44 (0) 191 280 4187, mobile: + 44 (0) 773 4316183
Bill Shepherd, Newcastle University: + 44 (0) 191 222 3507

Newcastle University

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