Intel Breakthrough Keeps Moore’s Law on Track

Intel has announced a breakthrough in chip design involving the use of new metals for the manufacture of 45 nanometer transistors.

Try to curb your enthusiasm.

On the surface, the high-k and metal gate developments may sound like items only an electrical engineer would be interested in, but it does have considerable impact for the future. Intel  was rapidly approaching a wall when it came to performance and how small it could make its chips.

“This is so important. The semiconductor guys were facing some really challenging physical constraints that if they had not solved them, would have made all of the progress they’ve made come to a grinding halt,” said semiconductor analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight64.

In a briefing at Intel’s headquarters, Mark Bohr, senior fellow at Intel, said the high-k and metal gate advances would allow Moore’s Law – which states processor performance doubles every 24 months – would be able to continue.

Silicon dioxide has been used to make the transistor gate in semiconductors for 40 years, hence the name “Silicon Valley.” But Intel and other semiconductor makers have shaved the layer down to literally five atoms of thickness. This was leading to heat leakage and wasted electrical current.

With the new high-k and metal gate technology, Intel is now able to get its transistors down to the 45nm range, which translates to twice the transistor density, a 30 percent reduction in transistor power, a 20 percent improvement in transistor switching speed and a 10-fold reduction in power leakage. Intel said it will begin the new manufacturing process later this year.

“These performance and leakage improvements would not be possible without high-k and metal gate improvements,” said Mohr. The new metals in the gate are thicker and prevent leakage of power.

Intel would not reveal all of the ingredients of its secret sauce. One of the new metals it would discuss is Hafnium, element 72 on the periodic table. According to Wikipedia, Hafnium is used in the control rods in nuclear reactors for its ability to absorb neutrons, and has excellent mechanical properties.

The first product based on this technology is a 45nm processor family codenamed Penryn. It will be packed with 410 million transistors, a big jump from the 290 million in the current generation. This is mostly due to a larger cache and the new SSE 4 instruction set for media and high performance computing applications.

This will translate in higher performance and faster clock rates in the same thermal layer as previous generations of processors. Penryn server chips will run at 80 watts, desktops at 65 watts and mobile parts at 35 watts.

All of which means smaller and faster chips for the consumer, said Brookwood. “For the consumer, this make it possible for transistors to get smaller and use less power, which means improved battery life, and it lets Moore’s Law continue,” he said.

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