IBM's new chip on the block

As the demand for portable storage for music, video and photo increases so is the pace of innovation, writes Puneet Mehrotra.

india Updated: May 09, 2007 03:52 IST

The chip is again making news. Again? Well again because if you have been reading about what's happening to the chip it makes me wonder if someday chips are destined to take over our brains! Don't believe me? Ok have a look at the recent developments.

Memory reinvention in the Winter of 2006

Imagine a memory chip which is 500 times faster than the current flash cards. Imagine a chip that uses less than one-half the power to write data into a cell. As the demand for portable storage for music, video and photo increases so is the pace of innovation. This new innovation shows that unlike flash, phase-change memory technology can improve as it gets smaller with Moore's Law advancements. The organization behind the current innovation is the IT major IBM along with scientists from Macronix and Qimonda.

The Spring of 2007

In February this year Intel leaps us into the world of Star Trek. It announced a super computer which we can hold in our hands! Intel developed a processor that delivers supercomputer-like performance. If that isn't enough imagine all this from a single, 80-core chip not much larger than the size of a finger nail. Wait there is more. All this while using less electricity than most of today's home appliances. There is yet more. It can perform about "a trillion calculations per second, or deliver a performance of 1.01 teraflops". Now that was some super performance.

The Magnetic Resonance of IBM

Well done IBM and well done Intel. IBM labs have another invention to boast of and this isn't a simple small invention. This invention could actually wave way for a whole new world of new generation chips.

Last week IBM today that researchers at its labs have demonstrated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to visualize nanoscale objects. This technique lead by IBM's Almaden Research Center brings MRI capability to the nanoscale level for the first time and represents a major milestone in the quest to build a microscope that could "see" individual atoms in three dimensions. "Using Magnetic Resonance Force Microscopy (MFRM), IBM researchers have demonstrated two-dimensional imaging of objects as small as 90 nanometers, a key advancement on the path of 3D imaging at the atomic scale. Such imaging could ultimately provide a better understanding of how proteins function, which in turn may lead to more efficient drug discovery and development," said Dr. Daniel Dias, Director, IBM India Research Laboratory.

"This research brings us one step closer in our quest to build a microscope that we hope can eventually see atoms in three dimensions," said Dr. Dias. "This would allow scientists to study the atomic structures of molecules -- such as proteins -- which would represent a huge breakthrough in structural molecular biology." MFRM offers imaging sensitivity that is 60,000 times better than current magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.

Chips get Natural

Now that was last week. This week IBM announced followed this with another interesting development. Using a "self assembly" nanotechnology IBM has created a vacuum between the miles of wire inside a Power Architecture microprocessor reducing unwanted capacitance and improving both performance and power efficiency.

What is interesting is that is the first time and probably the first ever application where a process from nature has been borrowed to build a next generation chip.
The natural pattern-creating process that forms seashells, snowflakes, and enamel on teeth has been harnessed by IBM to form trillions of holes to create insulating vacuums around the miles of nano-scale wires packed next to each other inside each computer chip.

"In chips running in IBM labs using the technique, the researchers have proven that the electrical signals on the chips can flow 35 percent faster or consume 35 percent less energy compared to the most advanced chips using conventional techniques," said Dr. Daniel Dias, Director, IBM India Research Laboratory.

The Last Word

Well Daniel congrats to you. As for IBM that's a very good development for two reasons. The first is the leap into a world of energy efficiency. The second and perhaps more important reason is showing the world of technology the importance of getting back to our source. There is a lot to be learnt provided we are prepared to listen, nature has it all. By the way IBM is a small correction. You didn't "borrow" anything from nature. I guess you "deserve" it. Well done.

Puneet Mehrotra is a web strategist at www.cyberzest.com and edits www.thebusinessedition.com. You can email him on puneet@cyberzest.com.

First Published: May 08, 2007 22:43 IST