Intel Discovers New Insulation for Future Chips

Chip giant Intel claims to have cleared a major hurdle in the quest to maintain power and heat efficiency in computer chips by discovering a process to shrink the transistors on the chip smaller and smaller to atomic levels.

The Santa Clara, California-based company said it has identified new materials that could replace those that have been used in the industry for 30 years, tackle the issue of electrical leakage and give further credence to Moore’s Law — a theory named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that says the number of transistors on a chip will double every 18 months.

Intel has generated some skepticism by not disclosing the actual materials it claims will reduce leakage more than 100 times compared with the silicon dioxide used today, but the company said transistors with the new materials “are an option to be integrated into future Intel processors as early as 2007 as part of the company’s 45-nanometer manufacturing process.”

Chip manufacturers are only now transitioning from 130-nanometer manufacturing to 90-nanometer processes, and they are expected to pack even more transistors onto processors as they go down to 65 nanometers and smaller.

Leakage Looms Large

Intel said its “breakthrough transistor technologies” address the growing problem of electrical current leakage in transistors.

As transistors that process the ones and zeros of computing get smaller — thereby enabling more features and increased performance at less cost — the gate, or insulation layer, of the chip has to get thinner, Gartner research vice president Martin Reynolds told TechNewsWorld. He said the issue of leakage — which causes power and heat problems — becomes more pressing as the transistor gates get thinner.

“By making the material more transparent to the electrical field, you can make it thicker,” Reynolds said of Intel’s approach. “It’s some kind of tricky assembly method that’s different than what people would do before.”

Extending Moore’s Law

Specifically, Intel said it has a thicker alternative, known only as “high-k” material, to the transistor insulation or gate dielectric used in the industry for the last three decades.

The solution comes in combination with another new technology — metal gate material — that is compatible with the high-k gate dielectric, Intel said, adding that it can continue to drive Moore’s Law well into the next decade using the new materials.

“Intel will use this advancement along with other innovations, such as strained silicon and tri-gate transistors, to extend transistor scaling and Moore’s Law,” said Sunlin Chou, Intel senior vice president and general manager of the technology and manufacturing group.

Silicon’s Staying Power

Reynolds said the finding is a breakthrough, but he added that such discoveries and announcements never feel like breakthroughs because the technology does not come out for three or four years, when it may be viewed simply as another step in Moore’s Law.

Intel’s new materials do eliminate a roadblock, but the technology is at least two generations of chips away, added Reynolds, who estimated that the new technology will be introduced with a 10- to 20-GHz processor.

Intel said the new high-k gate dielectric material and accompanying metal gate represent a departure from silicon, but Reynolds said the substance likely will continue to serve chip makers for quite a while.

“People always say silicon’s going to end, but it never does,” he said. “They may be going closer to the silicon wafer, and it may be more just a substrate [for transistors], but I think silicon is going to be around a long, long time.”

Mystery Metals

Although Intel is discussing details of the new materials in a white paper and at the International Workshop on Gate Insulator in Tokyo this week, the company is not disclosing what the new materials are, Intel spokeperson Kari Skoog told TechNewsWorld.

Skoog, who said there are actually two new metals that replace the traditional, polysilicon gate for different manufacturing processes, indicated it is too soon for Intel to describe the materials in more detail.

“Given how far along we are in the research and the steps we take to officially determine that this is what we will use, we will not disclose [what the materials are],” she said. “It’s mainly for competitive reasons. We won’t for a while.”

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