Intel Core 2 Duo ProcessorComputer chips work better if they’re shaped like Swiss cheese. You read that right. Chips with tiny, tiny holes can make a processor run faster or use less energy. At least this is what IBM is saying. They have even come out with a potentially ground breaking way to make these little holes. It may be one of the most important advances in chip making yet. Rather than boring the holes with a drill, which limits the size of the hole to how small we can make a drill bit, IBM uses a plastic-like material that spontaneously forms into structures resembling a sieve. The holes in this substance measure 20 nanometers, or 1 billionth of a meter.

This makes the process part of the venerable Nanotechnology push that promises to revolutionize the way we look at medicine, computing, and almost all other forms of science. The holes aren’t random either—the molecules of this substance fall into defined patterns, much like snowflake patterns. Most importantly, IBM says the technology could be added to existing manufacturing lines and applied to current chips, boosting both performance and lowering power consumption by 35 percent.

The company says that they will start using the new material in their own server chips in 2009, and then branch out to chips that they make for other companies. The holes fix a problem that has been a looming threat for the semiconductor industry. As chips get smaller and smaller, and their speed and efficiency increases, they become susceptible to energy loss from the tiny wires that make up the processing core.

Currently, the most sophisticated chip in production uses wires 65 nanometers apart, and looses half its electricity to leakage. The leakage not only wastes power but also slows down the processor. Ideally, the glass would be replaced with vacuum, a better insulator, but removing the glass away in the right places hasn’t been possible with current techniques. If the glass was simply etched away, the resulting “ditches” running along the wires would simply be filled in by the next layer of insulating glass applied, according to IBM Fellow Dan Edelstein, chief scientist on the project.

IBM’s polymer technique sidesteps that problem. First, the self-assembling material is applied on top of the glass, forming the tiny holes. The chip is then exposed to a gas that seeps through the material as if it were a stencil, etching away the underlying glass to form small holes in the top surface, and larger, continuous gaps between the wires.

Another layer of glass is applied in a vacuum chamber. Because the holes in the topmost existing glass layer are small, the newly applied layer of glass doesn’t seep into the underlying cavities. Instead, it seals them off, with a vacuum inside.

The technique was invented at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., and the T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, N.Y. It was adapted for commercial use by the University at Albany and IBM’s Semiconductor Research and Development Center in East Fishkill, N.Y.