"This doesn't change the face of computing immediately, but it does keep the door open so we can continue this trend of increasing scaling" in chip design, Edelstein said. "Ten years ago, we introduced copper" into chip design to replace aluminum, which was reaching its development plateau and threatening to stop the continued performance potential of chips, he said. "This is as big a thing."
Edelstein said the process came about through the merging of two separate scientific streams of thought. One group of scientists began several years ago to look at nature's self-assembly processes, while other researchers continued to look for ways to further shrink chip circuits, Edelstein said.
"It happened in a very common way -- as in two heads are better than one and because necessity is the mother of invention," he said.
The challenge for researchers is finding new ways to speed up the transfer of signals, he said. As the wires on a chip are shrunk, they grow more resistant to the energy flowing through them, requiring higher amounts of electricity. That resistance comes largely from the ultrathin layers of carbon silicate glass used to insulate the wires. If the insulation is removed, electricity will flow better with little reduction in energy, Edelstein said.
The smallest wires in chips today are about 100nm in diameter, or about one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair.
A key difference between IBM's chip research and self-assembly techniques in nature is that the airgap process allows the creation of trillions of holes that are similar, while snowflakes and seashells vary from example to example.
Analysts say the new technique is important to the evolution of chip design. "All things considered, it's a pretty big deal, considering the kinds of problems it solves and how clever it is," said Dan Sokel, an analyst at The Envisioneering Group. "Even [with] 15 percent [energy savings], every little bit helps."
The airgap technology "helps knock down the brick wall that says they can't make chips any smaller," Sokel said. "These ... little things start to add up and in that regard, IBM gets a lot of points for very clever engineering."
David Lammers, an analyst and director of WeSRCH.com, a Web site owned by chip consultancy VLSI Research, called the new process "a big innovation.
"As far as I know, I have never heard of anyone [using] self-assembly" techniques previously in chip design. "A better insulator between the wires will really help solve a problem."
The self-assembly process was jointly invented between IBM's Almaden Research Center and the T.J. Watson Research Center, N.Y. Commercial research for the process was comducted at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering of the University at Albany and at IBM's Semiconductor Research and Development Center.