3-D Transistors in The Works

Intel’s  researchers are closer to development of processors that use “tri-gate” or three-dimensional transistors, the microscopic, silicon-based switches that process the ones and zeros of the digital world.

The 3D angle is tied to the latest semiconductor research into nanotechnology . At the nanotech level some transistor features may consist of only a few layers of atoms so that what was previously thought of as “flat” is now being designed in three dimensions for improved performance and power characteristics.

Intel plans to make a technical presentation on its research today at the Symposium on VLSI Technology in Honolulu.

Commercial availability is years away, but the development dovetails with the chip industry’s increasing focus on more energy efficient design. Intel said tri-gate transistors offer considerably lower leakage and consume much less power than traditional flat or planar transistors.

For example, compared to today’s 65 nanometer (nm) transistors, integrated tri-gate transistors can offer a 45 percent increase in drive current (switching speed) or 50 times reduction in off-current, and 35 percent reduction in transistor switching power, according to Intel.

“It’s going to be a horse race. People will want to push planar further out so we have to make tri-gate more compelling,” Mike Mayberry, Intel vice president and director of component research, told internetnews.com. “It’s a friendly competition within Intel that will lead us to best technology.”

If adopted, Mayberry said tri-gate transistors could become part of Intel’s mainstream processor manufacturing as early as 2009 when the chip giant moves to 32nm manufacturing process. The next transition for Intel comes later this year when it moves from 65nm to 45nm manufacturing. In January Intel showed how its 45nm process development was well underway, showing a fully functional test chip that had over a billion transistors.

The tri-gate design holds significant promise for energy savings. Mayberry said that, while only a small amount of current escapes from today’s transistors, the next generation has larger leakage. The tri-gate design is meant to trap most of the current and, in concert with new materials, produce a more energy-efficient transistor.

“In the 1990s we improved efficiency by making devices smaller and lowering the voltage,” said Mayberry.

“But it’s becoming more of a challenge to lower the voltage as a primary means to decreasing power. We think this latest development allows us to scale and keep up with Moore’s Law well into the next decade.”

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