Motorola yesterday announced a semiconductor breakthrough that it claims will usher in a new class of high-performance chips.

Motorola says it has succeeded in combining standard silicon semiconductor technology with compound semiconductors, known as III-V materials – so-called because of their position in the third and fifth columns of the Periodic Table.

The new process, developed by a team headed by Motorola scientist Jamal Ramdani, allows a thin layer of a III-V compound to be grown on a silicon substrate.

"It's a challenge the industry has been looking to solve for a long time," a Motorola spokesman said.

The compounds, which include gallium arsenide (GaAs) and indium phosphate (InP), have superior electrical and optical characteristics allowing for higher switching speeds and power efficiency, but have so far been of limited practical usefulness.

Silicon, the workhorse of the semiconductor industry, is cheap but has its own limitations, including poor ability to emit light, and is difficult to integrate into laser or fibre-optic applications.

The researchers were able to create GaAs-on-silicon wafers up to 30 centimetres in diameter, build power amplifiers from those wafers and demonstrate them in mobile phones, Motorola said.

"Gallium arsenide and indium phosphate are materials which the industry has talked about for a long time, and which can handle the greater demand of these next-generation devices. But because they are brittle people haven't been able to produce them in very high quantities, and they were expensive," a spokesman said.

The breakthrough could mean a new wave of faster and cheaper applications, the spokesman said – even all-optical switches, which he called "a holy grail" for the industry.

He would not speculate on when consumer products featuring the new technology might hit the marketplace.