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Wednesday, 17 October, 2001, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
How gadgets could get cheaper
By BBC News Online's Emma Clark
Early last month Motorola announced that it had made a major breakthrough in chip technology.
By combining two different types of chip material, the company claimed it had found a way to bring down the cost of devices ranging from DVD players and third generation mobile phones to traffic lights.
Significantly it is not just Motorola that has talked in terms of a breakthrough.
The Cahners In-Stat Group, a US technology research company, is heralding the discovery as a "major turning point for the semiconductor industry".
Sean Lavey, a research analyst at IDC, while slightly more circumspect, says: "The biggest issue is the breakthrough in terms of cost."
Motorola's laboratory has managed for the first time to combine the "the best properties of workhorse silicon" with a compound called gallium arsenide (GaAs).
Although this is Double Dutch to most people, for the semiconductor industry it is an exciting discovery, following almost 30 years of research.
Silicon chips power most computers, while GaAs chips are used in DVD video players, communications equipment and lasers.
GaAs chips are 40 times faster than silicon chips and have optical capabilities, but are brittle, prone to breaking and very expensive.
For example, $450 will buy you a six inch substrate of GaAs, while $25 will buy the same amount of silicon.
Silicon, meanwhile, lacks the power to transmit light or support wireless technology.
Two become one
By combining silicon with GaAs - and other similar compounds - Motorola believes that it has discovered a thoroughbred that can drive the gadgets of the future for a relatively low cost.
"There is a big advantage being able to combine silicon and GaAs into one united offering - I can't emphasise that enough," says Richard Siber, a partner within the global m-commerce practice at Accenture.
"No one has been able to figure out how to integrate what has been two separate chipsets until now," he adds, remarking that he was working with chip companies on combining the technology more than 10 years ago.
"What this means is that one will have the potential to develop a multifunction device on one chip."
A multifunction device could include a mobile phone, a video camera and personal digital assistant rolled into one.
Currently such a device would need several different chips, making it much more expensive to build.
Combining the two materials has been a problem because they have very different atomic structures.
Previous attempts had resulted in cracks as the two materials "struggled to bond", says Motorola.
But then Motorola Labs' scientist Dr Jamal Ramdani hit upon using an intermediate layer of material between the silicon and the GaAs to reduce the strain.
One IBM scientist describes the new chip as mixing chalk and cheese, or orange juice and milk.
The idea of combining different materials is not entirely new.
IBM, Motorola, Texas Instruments and other companies have already managed to combine silicon with a substance called germanium.
Melded together the materials can support both radio frequencies and digital technology.
A single chip hosting combined functionality inevitably brings down costs, consumes less power and reduces the space taken up inside a gadget.
"Particularly in the mobile phone sector, the key thing is to find cost-effective ways of doing things," says Rupert Deighton, a communications manager at IBM Microelectronics.
The silicon germanium chip is already well on its way to commercial success, and IBM says it has signed up four licensees since it became available four years ago.
By contrast, silicon GaAs is still in its infancy. Its advantage over silicon germanium is its ability to transmit and receive light.
This alone means that it could reduce the cost of video streaming and transmitting data to third generation mobile phones, as well as building fibre-optic networks and providing broadband access to homes.
It could also make it cheaper to design traffic lights and manufacture automotive parts and many other products.
As a sign of its confidence, Motorola has filed 270 patents on inventions related to the new technology.
It plans to license out the chip technology to other companies as well.
Padmasree Warrior, who is leading Motorola's commercialisation effort, says the company is still working through forecasts, but "is very excited about the business potential".
"We have had a lot more interest that we expected from a broad range of clients," she adds.
Motorola expects the new chip to be available in the market by the end of 2003.
Ironically, the discovery has coincided with a dramatic downturn in the semiconductor industry.
Worldwide sales of semiconductors were $10.5bn in August, a decrease of 42% from a year ago, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.
IDC does not expect a recovery until the end of 2002, says Mr Lavey.
He also says that the new chip could eventually turn Motorola's fortunes around.
"Motorola has been struggling and it must bank on something to pick up revenues in the future - and this is one of those."
He believes that the chip's commercial success will rest on how much it sells for and its optical qualities.
Ms Warrior, however, is quietly confident.
"It will change the economics of what is possible with semiconductors we know today," she says.
Unfortunately, we will have to wait at least two years until we can judge whether this is really true.
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