IBM power-management IC tech could create new class of ICs for alternative energy

Armonk, N.Y. — IBM recently unveiled a chip-making technology for power-management semiconductors that the company says could create a new class of ultra-small and affordable semiconductors that control power use while they communicate in real-time with systems used to monitor “smart” buildings, energy grids and transportation systems. This is IBM’s first step into a segment that it sees as critical to the development of alternative energy sources, smart buildings and new consumer devices.

IBM’s process integrates wireless communications into a single power-management chip, which the company says can cut production costs by about 20 percent. By using the same chip-making process used in computers and smart phones, the new CMOS-7HV process can lower the costs of producing these chips while at the same time allowing for the integration of an “unprecedented” number of new functions, which cuts component count from three or four chips to one.

IBM is rolling out the new chip-making process to manufacturers in the consumer electronics, industrial, automotive, digital media and alternative-energy segments. The company’s semiconductor plant in Burlington Vt., will be the primary manufacturing location for the new technology. The company is already accepting designs from customers and is scheduling full production for the first half of 2011.

These advancements are critical to the rollout of smart systems where the ubiquity of cheap, single-chip sensors depends on affordable manufacturing technology, said IBM.

The market for power-management semiconductors is about $31 billion in 2010, up 40 percent from 2009 and on track to double by 2014, partly driven by new demand from alternative energy and consumer electronics manufacturers, according to market research firm iSuppli Corp. However, any device with a power supply, battery or power cord uses a power-management chip.

IBM says new semiconductor manufacturing technologies such as CMOS-7HV can help electronics makers stop power leakages that will enable the use of smaller more powerful batteries.

“IBM’s process pushes us closer to the holy grail of wireless — connect any where, at any time,” said Jeff Hilbert, president and co-founder, of Wispry (Irvine, Calif.), in a statement. “By enabling more efficient power management in smart phones, IBM’s technology opens up the possibility of using smaller, lighter batteries or needing less recharge time to provide the same amount of ‘talk’ time, video sharing or picture-snapping.”

IBM claims CMOS-7HV offers power-management chip manufacturers the potential to speed the rollout of new classes of products and infrastructure. As one example cited by IBM, the wireless PM technology can be used to create advanced power-optimizing chips located on individual solar panels to optimize electrical output of an entire array — harvesting up to 57 percent of the power that is typically lost to real-world conditions such as dirty panels.

Another example cited by IBM is in smart buildings. With IBM technology these PM chips can get smaller and cheaper and eliminate wiring, making energy-efficient retrofits an easier task for the average building owner, who can see up to a 50 percent improvement in efficiency.

“This new process can be used to create new types of affordable wireless sensors, the kind needed to monitor and connect the smart systems coming on line in the next few years — from alternative-energy products being developed by industrial firms to consumer companies looking to deliver mobile entertainment,” said Michael J. Cadigan, general manager, IBM Microelectronics Division, in a statement. “Integrating communications and power sensors on one chip cuts costs for the industry and is an example of our ‘smart-planet’ technology vision — one that we back up with R&D.”

Technology highlights of the IBM CMOS-7HV include the following:
–180nm lithography
–Triple-gate oxide high-voltage CMOS technology including high-voltage FETS from 20 to 50V extendable to 120V
— Shallow-trench isolation
–150K circuit/mm2
— RF features include varactors, HV Schottky barrior diode, inductors, MIM and vertical natural capacitors for high-voltage use, and precision poly, diffusion and well resistors)
–Three to seven levels of Al including thick last metal
–One-time programmable (OTP) Memory
–Wire-bond or solder-bump terminals