The drive to build faster processors may be stymied by two looming hurdles—high energy consumption and heat.
Next week, Intel Corp. will tout a new technology it has developed to overcome those hurdles.
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, chipmakers 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, which was introduced in 1971, had 2,250 transistors. 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 containing 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 impossible using existing technology, because the chips would consume too much energy and run far too hot.
"Smaller and faster just isnt good enough anymore," said Gerald Marcyk, director of components research for Intel Labs. "Power and heat are the biggest issues for this decade. What we are doing with our new transistor structure is helping make devices that are extremely power efficient, concentrating electrical current where its needed."
Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif., is addressing an issue facing all chipmakers, although its still too early to say whether Intels solution will be widely accepted, one analyst said.
Kevin Krewell, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat/MDR, said that in recent years, IBM has been a leader in addressing energy leakage inside chips. The Armonk, N.Y., company already uses material it calls silicon on insulator (SOI) in processors that its manufacturing today to prevent electrical interference between transistors.
"I dont think its a done deal that Intel has found the Holy Grail," 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, chipmakers 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.
But as transistors get smaller and run faster, they consume more energy, suffer from energy leakage and produce more heat.
Using a new transistor design as well as new materials, Intel researchers said the Terahertz transistor will consume far less energy and dramatically reduce electrical leakage, which in addition to wasting energy can result corrupt data.
Intel will present several technical papers addressing various elements of its new transistor design at the International Electron Device Meeting (IEDM) in Washington D.C. Dec. 3.
Intel said it may begin implementing the new transistor design into its chips as soon as 2005.