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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Partners to develop ultra-thin chips

The partnership among IBM, Sony and Toshiba that produced the vaunted Cell microprocessor is being extended for another five years to focus on advancing chip designs at extremely small scales.

The companies planned to announce on Thursday that their next joint research project will aim toward chips with features smaller than 32 nanometres - 32 billionths of a metre. (By comparison, the average strand of human hair strand is about 100,000 nanometres in diameter.)

Today's chips generally are built with components as small as 90 nanometres, though 65-nanometres-based chips are emerging.

It's part of the microprocessing industry's constant fight to wring performance improvements and cost efficiencies out of ever smaller chips.

Other efforts in the 30-nanometre range are already occurring, including a partnership between IBM and Advanced Micro Devices (Research into molecular computing is aiming even smaller, toward chips with features that might operate in the space of 2 to 3 nanometres.)

Lisa Su, a vice president in IBM's semiconductor research and development centre, said this partnership is different because of Sony's and Toshiba's expertise with the specific needs of chips for consumer devices.

The Cell chip already produced by the IBM-Sony-Toshiba pact packs eight processors and cost $US400 million to develop.

With its powerful graphics capabilities, Cell is the heart of Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3 video game system and next-generation Toshiba TVs, but it has yet to win much wider acceptance.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said the companies appear to have concluded that costs and complexities of 32-nanometre technology would be so immense that "partnering is the best way to go".

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