Air Could Be The Secret To Faster Computers

December 10, 1997

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are creating and studying aerogels, substances so porous they are more air than solid material. When used as insulators on computer chips, these porous materials could more than double computing speeds.

Researchers in the Semiconductor Research Corp. Center for Advanced Interconnect Science and Technology (CAIST) at Rensselaer are producing detailed studies of the aerogels and the processes by which they are created, as well as computer models to predict their performance and final properties.

At the Dec. 10 meeting of the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting in Washington, D.C., Texas Instruments reported that it has demonstrated the successful combination of copper wiring with a similar substance, xerogel. Illustrating the importance of this new type of insulators, the company estimated that within a decade, combining xerogel with copper wires and new designs could result in devices that are 10 times faster that today's best chips.

The Rensselaer aerogels were on display in November when CAIST members gathered on campus to hear reports. CAIST, an interdisciplinary university consortium, was established by industry to improve interconnects, the minuscule system of wires and insulation that carries messages on a chip.

Good insulators -- materials with a low dielectric constant -- let designers place lines close together and do not slow down the signal. Silicon dioxide, the material now used on most chips, has a dielectric constant of about 4. Decreasing that number to two could at least double the speed of computers. CAIST researchers are also studying polymers that could bring the number down to about 2.5. Air, the perfect insulator, is rated at 1.0. You can't hold chips together with air, but three members of Rensselaer's Isermann Chemical Engineering Department are learning how to solve the problem with aerogels.

Joel Plawsky, Peter Wayner Jr., and William Gill have successfully created highly porous silica films that are between 65 and 90 percent air, with a dielectric constant ranging from 2.3 to 1.4. The team has shown that it can control porosity and thickness. The new films apparently do not create problems by absorbing water during processing, and they stand up well to high temperature.

There still are numerous technical questions to be answered, but the new materials could be used by industry within five years, Plawsky says.

Contacts: Joel Plawsky (518) 276-6049,; Peter Wayner Jr.
(518) 276-6199,; William Gill (518) 276-2880,

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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