Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, says it has overhauled the basic building block of the information age, paving the way for a next generation of faster and more energy-efficient processors.
The advance involves a shift in the materials that Intel will use in microprocessor chips, offering vast improvements in performance and power savings.
The chips, which Intel plans to begin making in the second half of this year, are designed for computers but could also have applications in consumer devices. Their combination of processing power and energy efficiency could make it possible, for example, for cellphones to play video at length — a demanding digital task — with less battery drain.
Intel’s work overcomes a potentially crippling technical obstacle that has arisen as a transistor’s tiny switches are made ever smaller: their tendency to leak current as the insulating material gets thinner. The Intel advance uses new metallic alloys in the insulation itself and in adjacent components.
Company researchers said the new switches represented the most significant change in the materials used to manufacture silicon chips since Intel pioneered the modern integrated-circuit transistor more than four decades ago.
Word of the announcement, which is planned for Monday, touched off a war of dueling news releases as International Business Machines rushed to announce that it was on the verge of a similar advance.
IBM executives said the company was planning to introduce a comparable type of transistor in the first quarter of 2008. Many industry analysts say Intel retains a six- to nine-month lead over the rest of the industry, but IBM executives disputed this and said the two companies were focused on different markets in the computing industry.
Modern microprocessor and memory chips are created from an interconnected fabric of hundreds of millions and even billions of the tiny switches that process the 1’s and 0’s that are the foundation of digital computing.
They are made using a manufacturing process that has been constantly improving for over four decades. Current transistors, for example, are made with systems that can create wires and other features that are finer than the resolving power of a single wavelength of light.
The Intel announcement is new evidence that the chip maker is maintaining the pace of Moore’s Law, the technology axiom that states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years, giving rise to a constant escalation of computing power at lower costs.
“This is evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, but it will generate a big sigh of relief,” said Vivek Subramanian, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California in Berkeley.
For several decades, there have been repeated warnings about the impending end of the Moore’s Law pace for chip makers. In response, the semiconductor industry has repeatedly found its way around fundamental technical obstacles, inventing techniques that at times seem to defy basic laws of physics.
The chip industry measures progress by manufacturing standards defined by the width of one of the smallest features of a transistor for each generation. Currently much of the industry is building chips in what is known as 90-nanometer technology. At that scale, about 1,000 transistors would fit in the width of a human hair. Intel began make chips at 65 nanometers in 2005, about nine months before its closest competitors.
Now the company is moving on to the next stage of refinement, defined by a minimum feature size of 45 nanometers. Intel executives said the smallest features of its new transistors, known as gate length, would be just 35 nanometers. Other researchers have recently reported progress on molecular computing technologies that could reduce the scale even further by the end of the decade.
Intel’s imminent advance to 35 nanometers will have a huge impact on the industry, Subramanian said: “People have been working on it for over a decade, and this is tremendously significant that Intel has made it work.”
Intel’s advance was in part in finding a new insulator composed of an alloy of hafnium, a metallic element that has been used in filaments and electrodes as well as a neutron absorber in nuclear power plants. It will replace silicon dioxide — essentially the material that window glass is made of, but only several atoms thick.
Intel is also shifting to new metallic alloy materials — it is not identifying them specifically — in transistor components known as gates, which sit directly on top of the insulator. These are ordinarily made from a particular form of silicon called polysilicon.
The new approach to insulation appears at least temporarily to conquer one of the most significant obstacles confronting the semiconductor industry: the tendency of tiny switches to leak electricity as they are reduced in size. The leakage makes chips run hotter and consume more power.
Many executives in the industry say Intel is still recovering from a strategic wrong turn it made when the company pushed its chips to extremely high clock speeds — the ability of a processor to calculate more quickly. That obsession with speed at any cost left the company behind its competitors in shifting to low-power alternatives.
Now Intel is coming back. Although the chip maker led in the speed race for many years, the company has in recent years shifted its focus to low-power microprocessors that gain speed by breaking up each chip into multiple computing “cores.” In its new 45-nanometer generation, Intel will gain the freedom to seek either higher performance or substantially lower power while increasing the number of cores per chip.
“They can adjust the transistor for high performance or low power,” said David Lammers, head of WeSRCH.com, a Web portal for technical professionals.
The technology effort was led by Mark Bohr, Intel’s director of process architecture and integration. The breakthrough, he said, was in finding a way to deal with the leakage of current. “Up until five years ago, leakage was thought to increase with each generation,” Bohr said.
Several analysts said the technology could give Intel a meaningful advantage over competitors in the race to build ever more powerful microprocessors.
“It’s going to be a nightmare for Intel’s competitors,” said G. Dan Hutcheson, president of VLSI Research. “A lot of Mark Bohr’s counterparts are going to wake up in terror.”
An IBM executive said the company had also chosen hafnium as its chief insulator but would not release details of its new process until technical papers were presented at conferences.
Bernard Meyerson, vice president for systems and technology at IBM, said IBM had simply chosen to deploy its new process in chips that were part of high-performance systems aimed at the high end of the computer industry.
Fuente: International Herald Tribune