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Silicon Germanium Chips: The IBM Semiconductor invention that supercharged technological development

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The International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), nicknamed Big Blue, is an American multinational technology corporation headquartered in New York, with operations in over 175 countries. It specializes in computer hardware, middleware, and software and provides hosting and consulting services in areas ranging from mainframe computers to nanotechnology. The company is also responsible for making personal computers a household name

What led to the development of Silicon Germanium chips?

It was the year 1980. Bernard Meyerson – a doctoral student with a focus on semiconductor technology – started a research position at IBM. 

During this time, semiconductor experts at IBM realized they could not continue to shrink microprocessors without running into performance problems, and began looking into improving chips by employing alloys.

Meyerson came up with the idea of combining silicon with germanium. However, there was one huge obstacle. Silicon was supposed to reach the temperature of 1000 degrees Celsius to rid silicon of contaminating oxide, to thus prepare its surface for the growth of crystalline silicon and silicon germanium layers. However, this resulting chip could not withstand the extreme heat.

Meyerson brought his previous experience at work and made various experiments on the silicon chips and this is when he had a realization. The oxide layer formed only when silicon reached a temperature of up to 1000 degrees Celsius. Growing the material below 600°C could avoid the whole problem. 

“It was the most bizarre finding I’ve ever had, but it also gave us a 10-year head start on the rest of the world because nobody understood the effect, so away we went.” – Bernard Meyerson

IBM started growing silicon germanium at 550°C, producing literally flawless, uncontaminated films and tremendously fast transistors. SiGe was far more efficient than silicon alone. Its cost was also a tiny fraction of those for gallium arsenide, a leading alloy of the day used in communication chips. With SiGe, IBM alone had the manufacturing know-how along with patent protection.

Meyerson soon found himself in charge of hundreds of technologists focused on SiGe research and development for mainframe computers. However, some months later, a decision was made to reduce investment in SiGe, and IBM focused on an alternative technology in its mainframes—complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) transistors. 

Meyerson, who was convinced of Silicon Germanium chips’ potential for new markets, retained a small SiGe team and focused on ways to build demand. In 1992, the initial SiGe team was scaled down to two: Meyerson and electrical engineer, David Harame. 

However, the duo remained confident in Silicon Germanium alloy and decided to seek funding outside of IBM. Meyerson became a one-man sales force, forging alliances with several pioneering communications firms. He struck financial arrangements whereby the companies would pay IBM to develop and manufacture Silicon-Germanium chips. The funds came in and IBM raced through development, into production and, virtually overnight, brought new fields of wireless technology to life.

Results:

For more than a decade, beginning in the mid-1990s, IBM reigned as the Silicon Germanium chip manufacturer to the world, setting virtually every device performance record in silicon technology. The reliability, speed, and low cost of Silicon germanium chips enabled rapid growth in various wired and wireless networks, shrinking the size and power needs of WiFi, cellular phones, GPS systems, and many other products.

Bernard Meyerson and David Harame were recognized as IBM Fellows for their contributions to the technology. 

“When someone gives you the answer ‘No,’ you take it as a suggestion or a test of your belief in your idea, you also have to move from inventor to technical champion to fund-raiser to business manager. You have to get your hands dirty in all of it.” Dr Bernard Meyerson

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