Intel Looks to Nanotechnology

Sees nanotubes as key to chip capabilities.

Intel Corp. is looking to developments in an emerging branch of science for the potential to improve future generations of its processors. The chip maker is stepping up its research on carbon nanotubes, tiny tubes of rolled-up carbon hexagons, one product of the science of nanotechnology.

Intel, IBM and others are exploring nanotechnology as a way to continue boosting the performance of processors and memory, leading to future advances in the chips that power computers used in critical roles by businesses. Intel scientists are evaluating the use of carbon nanotubes in future transistors, the tiny on/off switches that transmit electrical signals inside chips, said Rob Willoner, a technology analyst for Intel Research.

Nanotechnology, which by definition involves working with materials that are 100 nanometers or smaller—just a fraction of the width of a human hair—has become something of a buzzword in technology. Intel, which relies on universities for its most advanced research and only later brings it in-house, has begun its own carbon nanotube research project, showing that the Santa Clara, Calif., company is getting more serious about that field.

The previously undisclosed Intel Strategic Research Project for carbon nanotubes, which consists of about 10 researchers, is charged with evaluating nanotubes as a method of building transistors. Researchers are exploring nanotubes ability to conduct heat to see if the tubes can be used to improve chip cooling. The tubes could be added to the films used between chips and their sinks to speed heat removal.

The project is still in its early stages, and researchers are grappling with basic challenges, including ways to separate and assemble tubes, a company spokesperson said.

As a result, chip makers will continue to use silicon, which has long been the base material for processor manufacturing, for several more generations. Intels road map, for example, includes at least four more generations of silicon-based chip manufacturing, with the last generation beginning in 2011.

But the ability to decrease the size of todays silicon-based transistors, which in turn allows chip makers to boost processor performance by packing more transistors into each chip, will eventually hit a wall, leading the companies to look elsewhere.

"For the foreseeable future, by which I mean well into the 2020s, things are going to be silicon-based," Willoner said. "The industry has so much experience with silicon ... and its such a wonderful material. There are a number of reasons [to stay with it]. But youre going to see a lot of materials going onto that. Its a little bit like steel and concrete for buildings. Youre going to see that going on for a long time, but there are other materials that are always being added to a builders palette, and thats what were seeing now [with silicon]."

Thus, hybrid chips that combine a silicon base and carbon nanotube transistors are one possibility among many.

John Spooner is a reporter for