SiGe chips designed to cut power consumption

IBM Corp.’s microelectronics division is adding some German efficiency to its products. The vendor announced last month it is shipping seven components with Silicon Germanium (SiGe)-based chips, which analysts say will help reduce power consumption in products like cellular phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

“It’s only in the last few years that IBM has found a way to take advantage of Germanium’s greater efficiency and its ability to work on a lower voltage and take less power, and be able to manufacture it with the kinds of economies of scale that they’ve done with silicon for the last 20 years,” says Rick Doherty, director of Envisioneering Group Inc., a Seaford, N.Y.-based consulting firm. “Before the end of 1999, you’ll see business, government and radio stations using it.”

Doherty adds SiGe-based components are suitable for emergency communications devices, cellular phones, pagers and cordless phones that employees could carry with them. Due to extended battery life, he notes, “You can use that phone all around, and that cuts down on voice-mail and makes people a little more productive with their day.”

IBM has been manufacturing components with SiGe for several years, but in the past, it did not mass-produce SiGe products.

“In the past, we either designed to customer specifications, or we’ve just taken their design, put it in our foundry and started making products,” says Darren Jones, SiGe product marketing manager at IBM’s Fishkill, N.Y.-based microelectronics division. “This is becoming a high-volume product line rather than a low-volume foundry service.”

Products now available include: a high-dynamic range low-noise transistor, which can be used in radio communications components such as amplifiers, mixers, switches and oscillators and allows manufacturers to build wireless devices operating at frequencies of 8 to 10 GHz; a high-dynamic 900 MHz low-noise amplifier that operates at one to three volts and is designed for personal communications service (PCS) and other wireless devices operating at 800 MHz to 1 GHz; and a high-dynamic range 1,900 MHz low-noise amplifier designed to make it easier to switch channels in wireless devices using the code division multiple access (CDMA) protocol and a linear power amplifier designed for time division multiple access (TDMA) operating at frequencies of 900 to 940 MHz.

IBM is also offering three SiGe tri-band products that operate at frequencies of 900, 1,800 and 1,900 MHz. The low-noise amplifier (LNA) is touted as a device that will give manufacturers more efficient control of frequency power and clarity, while the image reject mixer/LNA combines two LNAs with a mixer function, which the vendor claims will reduce production costs by reducing the number of parts. The other tri-band component is a voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO), which is designed to produce clarity for digital cellular phones.

The power savings are hard to measure, but IBM expects SiGe devices to be anywhere from two to four times as efficient as conventional silicon-base products. Other advantages include lower noise and lower resistance, Jones adds.

Doherty says SiGe-based wireless devices would give off less radio frequency energy than silicon devices, causing less interference with other systems such as avionics and medical equipment.

“You’ve probably seen a situation where you go into a hospital and you’re told to turn off your cell phones and such,” he says. “Lower power radio frequency communicators are better citizens with other people and other systems that are out there for emergency broadcasting and health care.”

Although SiGe will not necessarily allow air travellers to use their cellular phones while flying, the technology could enable airlines to set up wireless local area networks within a first-class cabin, Doherty predicts. “There would be more convenience within an aircraft,” he adds. “Wire inside an aircraft is weight, and weight is a fuel penalty, and that raises the cost of flying.”

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