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Tue, Nov 27, 2001 - Page 21 News List

Intel researchers design tiny transistors

NEW TECHNOLOGY In the never-ending race for CPU performance superiority, the industry's leader has announced new chip-making methods it says will keep it on top


Intel Corp next week will showcase a new type of transistor as the biggest maker of computer chips looks for ways to build devices that are 500 times faster than today's, yet don't need too much energy.

The so-called TeraHertz transistors, still being researched at Intel and scheduled for release as early as 2005, operate at a speed of 1,000THz. They generate little heat and will use only about as much power as today's best 2GHz CPUs, Intel said.

Intel has been pressing developers not only to jack up the speed of computer processors while reducing the power needed to run them. The TeraHertz transistor -- a complete redesign of current parts that combines three technical challenges and represents a major shift in Intel's manufacturing practices -- would accomplish both tasks.

"It's the combination of lower cost and increased performance that has been the magic that drives the semiconductor industry," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with researcher Insight 64.

These transistors will switch on and off a trillion times a second to regulate the flow of electricity in chips. It would take a person 15,000 years to do the same thing with a light switch.

The company will reveal technical details of the design at a Dec. 3 conference in Washington. Intel will also tout working transistor models with circuits just 15 nanometers wide -- even smaller than the 20-nanometer ones announced in June that were already the industry's thinnest.

Intel Chief Technology Officer Patrick Gelsinger in February warned that even though it's possible to build chips with a billion transistors in coming years, the power needed to run them could slow advances. Today's Pentium4 chip has 42 million transistors.

"The power is getting out of hand," said Rob Willoner, an Intel technology analyst. "We're going to get into power densities comparable to that of a nuclear reactor."

TeraHertz transistors seem to solve the problem and ensure that Intel can continue to follow Moore's law, the maxim stated by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that says the number of transistors in a chip doubles every 18 months, which has for the most part accurately predicted the pace of semiconductor development since 1965.

"Moore's law is not like the law of gravity," Insight 64's Brookwood said. "It really requires constant efforts on the part of manufacturers and developers to keep it on the track." Intel will include some aspects of the TeraHertz transistors in early 2003, with full implementation in 2005.

The new transistor's source and drain, the two points that direct the flow of electricity, are thicker. That gives electrons more mobility, like moving to a fire hose from a garden hose. The added mobility lowers resistance and means it takes less power to drive the electrical current.

The chip also has a new so-called gate dielectric. The gate determines whether the transistor is on or off; its dielectric layer cuts energy leakage through the gate. As chips get smaller, the layer gets thinner, and leaks increase.

Intel uses silicon dioxide now and wants to replace it with a material that can block more leaks. The chipmaker is evaluating what new material to use and expects to reduce leakage by a factor of 10,000.

Finally, another layer of insulation keeps energy from leaking when the transistor is off. The process, dubbed silicon-on-insulator or SOI, has gained popularity with rivals.

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