One of the most important findings in transistors in the last four decades enhances the much desired development of smaller and more powerful microchips.
Intel Corp. and IBM made the technological breakthrough by using an exotic new material: tiny switches that are the building blocks of microchips. "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 consultant. "Moore's Law was coming to a grinding halt," an allusion to the industry maxim formulated by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who said that the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years. As a result of this principle, the chips have been smaller and faster, in an industry of $250 billion in annual sales.
The new technology, based on the metal named hafnium, helps the development of circuitry as small as 45 nanometers (1:2000 of the width
of a human hair). "We do expect that those products will deliver higher performance levels than existing products," said Steve Smith, vice president of Intel's digital enterprise group operations. "What we're seeing is excellent double-digit performance gains on media applications."
The new technology could last at least two technology generations, when circuitry will get 22 nm dimensions. "We've been doing this for 40 years and we've got to the point where some of these layers you have to make smaller wouldn't scale anymore," said IBM Chief Technologist Bernie Meyerson. "We are getting down to a stage of technology where people have wondered if you could really ever go there, and we have definitely shown a roadmap down to these unbelievably tiny dimensions," said Meyerson.
The current technology has a 5 atoms thick layer of silicon-based material, thus a lot of electricity leaks out, causing wasted power and shorter battery life. "It's like running two faucets when you only need one. You're actually wasting more water than you're actually using," said Jim McGregor, an analyst at the technology market research firm In-Stat.
These are the benefits of the new technology: smaller transistors, potentially doubling their total number in a given area, and also faster ones, with a speed increase of over 20 %, and a decrease in power leakage by over 80 %. "Consumers are going towards mobility and power-sensitive solutions. We need to not only make things smaller and more efficient but also use less power," McGregor said.
But there are many obstacles in continuing the development of new chip generations: it is increasingly difficult to create light beams narrow enough to etch circuitry on chips. "But this takes out what has been considered the biggest number one roadblock," VLSI's Hutcheson said.