Researchers at the Santa Clara, Calif., chip maker have made strides in replacing silicon—which for decades has been the backbone of chip manufacturing—with a compound semiconductor made from a blend of the elements Indium and Antimony.
Intel has been working with UK firm Qinetiq Ltd. to add the new materials inside transistors it is designing for introduction in 2015 or later.
The effort being conducted inside Intels Components Research Lab could potentially help Intel introduce higher-performing, power-efficient chips during the latter half of the next decade, Intel said on Wednesday in a paper presented at IEDM (the International Electron Devices Meeting) in Washington.
"Its a substantial improvement and we think it can be used for logic [or processors such as the Pentium] and provide some substantial improvements for end users," said Rob Willoner, a technology analyst in Intels Technology and Manufacturing Group, based in Hillsboro, Ore. "Imagine what 10 times less power [consumption] can do for notebook batteries or data centers."
Producing higher-performance chips each year is the lifeblood of Intel as well as other chip makers. But the process is becoming more difficult, the manufacturers say. Power consumption is increasingly becoming a problem as performance ratchets up following Moores Law—the Intel founders observance that chip makers can double the number of transistors in their products every two years, therefore boosting performance. Transistors are the tiny on/off switches used to transmit electrical signals inside chips.
But simply making transistors smaller, a measure which also tends to make them faster, is not enough. Performance gains from this scaling havent been as large of late, while power consumption has become an issue, Willoner said.
So Intel, like its competitors, has been eyeing new materials, new manufacturing techniques and new transistor designs to help it continue to boost performance while controlling power consumption.
Intel has already made several production changes, including a move several years ago from aluminum wires to copper wires to connect its transistors. Its also considering the introduction in the next few years of so-called Tri-gate transistors, which have better control of their on/off states than standard transistors and thus dont leak as much electricity, the company has said.
Turning to the Indium and Antimony compound semiconductor "is another example of where we would be introducing new materials at the same time we continue to scale," Willoner said.
Intel researchers latest experiments with the compound, dubbed Indium Antimonide, have shown that it has the potential to bump future transistors performance by as much as 50 percent, while reducing power consumption by a factor of 10 against that of its current state-of-the-art transistors, Willoner said.
The performance increase that Intel has seen comes from replacing silicon with the Indium Antimonide inside the channel, the part of a transistor which serves to funnel electrons inside an electrical signal from one side of the transistor, dubbed the source, to the other, called the drain. The compound essentially greases the skids for the electrons, allowing them to move more freely and more quickly. Speeding them up creates the performance gain, while freeing movement means less power is wasted, Willoner said.
Still, exactly when—or even if—Indium Antimonide will be needed by Intel remains to be seen. The chip maker has been working on numerous research projects simultaneously in an effort to have several options available when it comes to driving up performance. Its also investigating carbon nanotubes, for example.
Intel could also combine one or more of these research projects with its traditional scaling techniques to create even speedier chips and maintain an edge on power consumption.
Although it is considering replacing silicon in one piece of a potential future transistor, it expects to combine the new materials with silicon and to continue using that material as the basis for its chips for the foreseeable future, Willoner said.
Intel isnt the only company working with new materials or manufacturing techniques. On Tuesday, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and IBM detailed some of their work in developing new chip manufacturing techniques that will boost transistor performance, yet help limit power consumption, in chips with circuits knitted together at the 65-nanometer level and below.
The companies unveiled a new chip making recipe that uses methods such as strain, a technique that repositions the internal structures of a chip, to boost performance while also keeping a lid on power consumption.
AMD and IBM said in a joint statement that their recipe offers a 40 percent increase in transistor performance, when compared with like chips made without stress technology, but at the same time maintains control over power consumption and heat dissipation.
"Our joint work on developing advanced process technologies continues to ensure that we can create and provide the highest-performance, lowest-power processors on the market," Nick Kepler, vice president of logic technology development at AMD, said in a statement.
AMD has begun pilot production at 65 nanometers at its recently opened Fab 36 plant in Dresden, Germany. The chip maker expects to begin full 65-nanometer production in the latter half of 2006, Kepler said in a recent interview with Ziff Davis Internet.
IBM of Armonk, N.Y., has also said it plans to convert its chip plant in East Fishkill, N.Y., from 90-nanometer production to 65-nanometer production over time.
Meanwhile, Intel has already been shipping 65-nanometer chips, including a dual-core desktop processor dubbed Presler.