IBM Spinning Out Faster, Better Chips
- Spinning Out Faster, Better Chips
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
IBM and Stanford University set up a lab to harness a quantum property of
electrons called spin. New chips based on the so-called spintronics
technology will be faster than conventional electronics and generate far
Amit Asaravala reports from San Jose, California.
SAN JOSE, California -- IBM and Stanford University said on Monday they have
established a laboratory to develop new, faster computer chips based on
spintronics, an esoteric field that taps the electromagnetic properties of
electrons to yield more computing power.
Known as the Spintronic Science and Applications Center, or SpinAps, the
laboratory will have facilities at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose
and at the Stanford campus in nearby Palo Alto. Researchers will primarily
study ways in which the spin, or orientation, of electrons can be used to
overcome impending obstacles in contemporary computer chip design.
"We're trying to do what we think could be as significant as the beginning
of electronics and the discovery of the transistor decades ago," said Robert
Morris, director of the Almaden Research Center. "This lays the groundwork
for the future in many ways."
The general concept behind spintronics has been used in hard drives since
1997. But scientists at IBM and Stanford hope their research will help them
adapt the technology to other areas of computer design.
Conventional microchips store and manipulate data by changing and measuring
the flow, or current, of electrons through circuits. But this flow has
drawbacks -- specifically, it generates a lot of heat. Spintronics, in
contrast, would rely on a quantum property of electrons called spin --
measured as either "up" or "down." Depending on the spin, electrons either
attract or repel metals. Because the new circuitry would rely on magnetism
and not electricity, spintronic chips would need to use less energy.
IBM and Stanford scientists believe spintronics will allow chip
manufacturers to continue doubling the speed of their products about every
two years while avoiding the problems of energy loss and heat dissipation
that currently face the industry.
In recent years, the problem of heat dissipation has become the bane of
companies like IBM, Intel and Motorola. Many experts predict that, at the
current rate of progress, the companies will hit a wall in chip speed in 10
to 20 years. At that point, the chips would give off so much heat that they
will be impractical for laptops and personal computers.
Spintronics researchers are exploring applying the technology to the design
of memory chips next. IBM researchers have developed a prototype of what
they call a magnetic RAM, or MRAM, chip that can store 16 megabytes of data.
Although the chip is far from having the capacity of today's dynamic RAM
chips, which can store up to 512 megabytes of data, the researchers say they
will soon be able to close the gap.
The resulting chip would offer the transistor density of DRAM chips and the
speed of SRAM chips all in one package. The use of such chips could lead to
computers that would boot up instantly.
But IBM said consumers shouldn't hold their breath. The company doesn't
expect to market spintronics products for at least another five years. And
entire computer systems based on the technology could take decades to