Intel Corp. this week will tout a new technology it has developed to overcome two looming hurdles that could stymie efforts to build faster processors—high-energy consumption and heat.
Specifically, Intel researchers have come up with a new design for the transistor, the key component at the heart of all integrated circuits. To make faster processors, chip makers have shrunk transistors, which basically operate like tiny on/off switches, to enable them to operate at a higher frequency and to make them easier to pack onto a silicon die.
For example, Intels first processor, the 4004, introduced in 1971, had 2,250 transistors. By contrast, todays top-performing Pentium 4 processor has about 42 million transistors.
Using its new design, the Terahertz transistor, Intel said it hopes to one day manufacture chips with more than a billion transistors on them that are capable of being turned on and off up to 1 trillion times per second. Such designs are currently impossible using existing technology, Intel officials said, because the chips would consume too much energy and run far too hot.
Intel is addressing an issue facing all chip makers, said one analyst, although its too early to say whether the Santa Clara, Calif., companys solution will be widely accepted.
For example, IBM in recent years has been a leader in addressing energy leakage inside chips and already uses material—which it calls silicon on insulator—in processors it is manufacturing to prevent electrical interference between transistors, said Kevin Krewell, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat/MDR.
"I dont think its a done deal that Intel has found the Holy Grail, yet," said Krewell, in Sunnyvale, Calif. "Im not sure this is better than what IBM has done or is working on, but certainly energy leakage is a really important issue. Already today, were starting to see leakage effects in efforts to build ultra-low-voltage chips, resulting in chips that use more power than they should."
To pack more transistors together and enable them to operate at higher speeds, chip makers have shrunk transistors to once-unthinkable sizes. For example, using its newest 0.13-micron manufacturing process, Intel now makes transistors as small as 0.06 microns. By comparison, a human hair is about 50 microns wide.
Intel is presenting several technical papers addressing its new design at the International Electron Devices Meeting in Washington this week.
Intel said it may begin implementing the new transistor design into its chips as soon as 2005.