From Russia With Love

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A few places have mentioned that Isonics announced that AMD was indeed the previous “Unknown CPU Manufacturer.”

If you forgot what Isonics did, or never got the chance to forget, Isonics is a company that plans on making isotopically pure silicon-28 wafers. You don’t need to know the chemistry, just know that CPUs made from this stuff will run cooler than CPUs made from regular silicon.

AMD would obviously like this very much.

Isonics has been having some real problems. They don’t actually make this isotonically pure material. They were supposed to get some from another American company. That company didn’t deliver on this and a few other things, so now both sides are busy suing each other.

In June, Isonics announced to its shareholders that it found an alternative source for this pure silicon from Russian sources, and felt pretty sure they could deliver all the pure silicon they wanted in the future.

In its SEC report, Isonics described its Russian connection:

“We depend on an isotope enrichment plant, located in Russia, which is owned
by the Ministry of Atomic Energy of the Russian Federation (the “Ministry”),
which is part of the cabinet of the government of the Russian Federation, for
most of our stable and radioisotopes. We signed an agreement with the commercial
department of the Ministry to purchase certain isotope separation services
through 2001. Disruption or termination of services provided by the Ministry
could have a material and adverse affect upon our financial condition and
results of operations.”

Presumably, the silicon would be coming from the same place, or one pretty close to it.

While Russia is by no means the most corrupt country in the world in which to do business, at least at the moment, it’s not a ton better than the worst (link goes to a Excel spreadsheet, of the 91 countries listed, Russia is tied for 79th). You can visit the website of the organization that put together this corruption index here.

In this particular case, you always have at least the (probably small) potential for sales to be disrupted on national security grounds. Far more likely, though, if this starts becoming a real money-maker, somebody who can block deliveries may well do so to get a bigger hand-out.

You don’t gamble your company betting nothing like that will ever happen. AMD cannot be comfortable with this being the sole source of supply should it decide to start using this pure silicon in all its processors.

Though that isn’t mentioned, if you read the June Isonics announcement closely, you get the sense that full-blown production isn’t going to happen anytime soon. AMD will probably start doing some testing perhaps this fall, which probably precludes this stuff being used in at least the first generation of .13 micron processors.

There was one odd sentence in the Isonics announcement which may indicate the proper timeframe for commercial use:

“As the industry follows the technology roadmap to 0.10 micron transistors and below, we are confident that silicon-28 will find uses in many diverse applications.”

That would be the generation after 0.13 micron, which means more like 2004 than any time soon.

This could well be reading the tea leaves too hard. However, probably the best way to find out if it’s wrong is to see what Isonics says and does over the next six-nine months. If they’re scrambling to get more capacity elsewhere to make this, then this pure silicon may come sooner rather than later.

However, for the moment, seems to me at least that AMD views isotopically-pure silicon as a “nice-to-have” rather than something they’re counting on anytime soon.

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