Intel Process Promises Faster Chips

Intel Corp. researchers have developed a new technology that paves the way for producing processors running at speeds of up to 20GHz in a few years.

Intel Corp. researchers have developed a new technology that paves the way for producing processors running at speeds of up to 20GHz in a few years.

Engineers working for the giant chipmaker say they have designed a new method for "packaging" microprocessors that will enable Intel to manufacture smaller, more energy efficient and faster chips.

Packaging plays several crucial roles in assuring that microprocessors operate at their optimum performance level. Overall, the packaging supplies the chip with electricity and acts as the interface for data transfers between the silicon die and the rest of the computer system. In addition, it serves to protect the chip from contamination and helps dissipate heat generated by the processor.

The technology, called "Bumpless Build-Up Layer" packaging, or BBUL, takes a different approach from the current practice of manufacturing the processor die separately and later bonding it to the package. Instead, Intel said, BBUL "grows" the package around the silicon during the manufacturing process, resulting in thinner, higher-performance processors that consume less power.

Intel, which will detail the technology at the Advanced Metalization Conference in Montreal Tuesday, believes it can begin making BBUL packaging available for commercial products in the next five to six years.

While the role of packaging is little known outside the industry, technological advances in this area are considered crucial for the development of faster chips, said an executive with the Santa Clara, Calif., company.

"If packaging technology does not keep up with the pace of silicon development, it will become a limiter to processor performance," Gerald Marcyk, director of Intels Components Research Lab, said in a statement. "Putting fast silicon into slow packages would be analogous to putting a Formula One engine on a bicycle and expecting it to run like a race car."

Today, silicon chips, such as the Intel Pentium 4 processor, are connected to their packaging via tiny balls of solder called "bumps." These bumps make the electrical and mechanical connections between the package and the chip.

BBUL packaging eliminates use of these solder bumps. Instead, high-speed copper connections are used to connect the die to the different layers of the package. This approach reduces the thickness of the processor package and enables the processor to run at a lower voltage—both key features for small, battery-operated devices such as mobile PCs or handheld devices.

Using BBUL packaging, Intel could also create multi-chip processors, such as server processors with two silicon cores and other supporting silicon chips embedded into one small, high-performance package.

BBUL packaging technology could also offer a simple method to develop a "system-on-a-package" through the use of high-speed copper lines directly located above the different pieces of silicon. According to Intel, this would allow designers to more easily embed powerful computers into such everyday objects as a cars dashboard.