IBM has bet the future of its microprocessor business on copper interconnect technology, a project almost shelved by the cash-strapped vendor in the early nineties. "I would be surprised if we are still producing any aluminium processors by the end of next year," a spokesman for IBM Microelectronics told PC Week. The vendor began volume production of the copper version of the PowerPC 740/750 chip last week for Apple. But this does not necessarily mean the vendor is producing copper chips by the ton. "The term volume is a technical term meaning that the chip has been tested and qualified in systems," the spokesman explained. Three divisions of IBM, S390, RS/6000 and AS/400, are already testing prototypes of the copper processor and planning to incorporate the chip in next year's products. "The technology will be available some time in the first half of next year," confirmed Tony Madden, EMEA general manager for AS/400 at IBM. The October release of RS/6000 is expected to be aluminium but the plan with subsequent releases is to produce an amalgamation of the P3 Superchip (used in the Deep Blue machine that beat chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov) and the PowerPC chip architectures with copper interconnect. The copper project was only saved from the scrap-heap a few years ago by the "efforts of one obstinate developer", who struggled for years with the chemical incompatibilities of copper and silicon and fought off constant development cuts throughout the early 1990s, explained an IBM insider. Despite a long history of development co-operation between IBM and Motorola on PowerPC, Motorola plans to create its own copper chip technology without IBM. Copper technology Chip makers have traditionally used aluminium wiring to interconnect the transistors in processors, because there was no way of using copper without damaging the silicone substrate. This changed last year when IBM found an effective way of producing copper chips. Copper is a far better conductor of electricity than aluminium, allowing chips to be more power efficient and to run faster. As the interconnects can be smaller, less metal is needed and production costs are reduced.
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