Intel Developer Forum: Plans for tomorrow's chips are revealed

Delegates at the Intel Developer Forum heard how the company planned to use new materials and new structures to create the...

Delegates at the Intel Developer Forum heard how the company planned to use new materials and new structures to create the microscopic transistors that smother the surface of silicon chips.

Besides boosting PC performance, the techniques should allow Intel to develop chips that combine communications with computation, reducing the cost and boosting the power of mobile phones, network equipment and other devices.

"We envision a future where information becomes more personal, where my communications device is in my lapel pin, where I have instant access to knowledge whatever I am doing and wherever I am," said Pat Gelsinger, Intel vice-president and chief technology officer.

Transistors act like tiny switches on the surface of chips, turning on and off to represent the ones and zeros of binary computer code. As transistors get smaller and multiply in number, however, challenges arise that threaten to block the progress of Moore's Law, the prediction that the number of transistors on a chip will double roughly every two years.

One challenge being addressed by Intel, IBM and others is finding a way to pass more electrical current through transistors without them burning up or leaking electricity.

IBM has announced plans to introduce a "double gate" transistor in about 2006, which should allow it to increase electrical current and performance of its chips.

Not to be outdone, Intel revealed plans to build what it called "Tri-Gate" transistors soon after the middle of the decade. By manipulating structures on chips that are only a few dozen atoms wide, the company has devised a way to increase the surface area of each transistor gate, producing the equivalent of three gates for each transistor.

Intel plans to present more details about the design, along with "record-setting performance data," at a technical conference in Japan next week, said Sunlin Chou, senior vice-president and general manager of Intel's technology and manufacturing group.

Intel also revealed yesterday that it will use a new material, silicon germanium, to make some of its chips when it moves to a new "90 nanometre" manufacturing process toward the end of next year. The material, already in use by IBM, is a better conductor of electricity and can help boost chip performance.

Silicon Germanium is also more expensive, Chou said, and Intel will, initially, restrict its use to chips used in communications equipment such as optical networking components.

Boosting the transistor count will allow Intel to integrate new functionality on its processors, Chou said. For example, by the middle of the decade it expects to combine analogue components such as a radio frequency receiver with logic components, creating in effect a miniature and inexpensive radio on a single chip. For users, it means that any device with an Intel processor could include wireless capabilities for free.

Intel is also looking at new components for networking gear. Gelsinger described efforts to build a "tuneable laser", an important component for optical networks that costs thousands of dollars.

By combining digital and optical functions on a single chip, and by making the chips using standard manufacturing processes, Intel expects to produce such components later in the decade for as little as a few dollars, he said.

The advance could make it far less expensive to "light up" the miles of optical fibre that are lying unused around the world, boosting the amount of bandwidth available to end users.

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