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Appeared on: Monday, January 29, 2007
Intel, AMD Proceed in 45nm Transistor Technology

Intel and IBM have announced one of the biggest advances in transistors in four decades, overcoming a frustrating obstacle by ensuring microchips can get even smaller and more powerful.

The breakthrough, achieved via separate research efforts and announced on Friday, involves using an exotic new material to make transistors -- the tiny switches that are the building blocks of microchips.

The technology involves a layer of material that regulates the flow of electricity through transistors.

"At the transistor level, we haven't changed the basic materials since the 1960s. So it's a real big breakthrough," said Dan Hutcheson, head of VLSI Research, an industry consultancy.

"Moore's Law was coming to a grinding halt," he added, referring to the industry maxim laid down by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years.

The latest breakthrough means Intel, IBM and others can proceed with technology roadmaps that call for the next generation of chips to be made with circuitry as small as 45 nanometers, about 1/2000th the width of a human hair.

Intel's new 45nm series

Intel said it will use the technology, based on a silvery metal called hafnium, in new processors coming out later this year.

Hundreds of millions of microscopic transistors ? or switches ? will be inside the next generation Intel Core 2 Duo, Intel Core 2 Quad and Xeon families of multi-core processors. The company also said it has five early-version products up and running -- the first of fifteen 45nm processor products planned from Intel.

Intel believes it has extended its lead of more than a year over the rest of the semiconductor industry with the first working 45nm processors of its next-generation 45nm family of products ? codenamed "Penryn." The early versions, which will be targeted at five different computer market segments, are running Windows Vista, Mac OS X, Windows XP and Linux operating systems, as well as various applications.

The company has more than 15 products based on 45nm in development across desktop, mobile, workstation and enterprise segments. With more than 400 million transistors for dual-core processors and more than 800 million for quad-core, the Penryn family of 45nm processors includes new microarchitecture features for greater performance and power management capabilities, as well as higher core speeds and up to 12 megabytes of cache. The Penryn family designs also bring approximately 50 new Intel SSE4 instructions that expand capabilities and performance for media and high-performance computing applications.

IBM and AMD follow in Intel's footsteps

Just one dat after Intel's announcements, AMD also said that it is working High-K and metal gate breakthrough. IBM expects its technique to debut next year in chips made by its partners, which include AMD and Japan's Toshiba.

IBM is also using a combination of High-K and metal gate technologies, which promise to cut leakage, allow chips to operate at cooler temperatures and increase battery life in portable devices.

The two new technologies provide an important breakthrough because researchers believed that it would be impossible to make 45nm chips using existing production techniques.

"Until now, the chip industry was facing a major roadblock in terms of how far we could push current technology," said Dr T C Chen, vice president of science and technology at IBM Research.

"After more than 10 years of effort, we now have a way forward. With chip technology so pervasive in our everyday lives, this work will benefit people in many ways."

The problem with the previous technology is that the layer of silicon-based material is now just 5 atoms thick, meaning lots of electricity leaks out, resulting in wasted power and shorter battery life. The benefits of the new technique can be tapped in a number of ways. Transistors can be made smaller, potentially doubling the total number in a given area, their speed can be increased by more than 20 percent, or power leakage can be cut by 80 percent or more.

Researchers are optimistic the new technology can be used at least through two more technology generations out, when circuitry will be just 22 nanometers.


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