A Year Ago: The future of chip design

First published: Wed, 13 Oct 1999 15:01:04 GMT

And just how fast can the damn things go?

A blazingly fast chip, a colorized plastic display, and a six million-pixel image sensor will take center stage at an upcoming gathering of engineers touting the latest ideas from their research labs.

Every year, the movers and shakers in the chip industry convene at the International Electron Devices Meeting to share their research and provide important clues about where electronics technology will be three to five years down the road.

One of the highlights of this December's meeting in Washington DC will be TRW's 69GHz transistor, which uses an expensive, exotic semiconductor material called indium phosphide instead of silicon. Although the material is expensive and difficult to work with, it produces blazingly fast transistors that could be useful for high-speed optical communications systems.

Researchers from Intel plan to show a 16MB memory chip running at 1.06GHz and using technology that may one day push the clock frequencies of microprocessors beyond 1GHz. A major problem with operating integrated circuits at such high frequencies is that they use as much power as light bulbs. With this technology, Intel engineers were able to build the device so it consumes less power.

Seiko Epson has come up with an active-matrix flat-panel display built from a type of light-emitting plastic called phenylene vinylene (PPV). The researchers have built a 5cm diagonal display using an economical inkjet deposition process that essentially prints the display components.

Researchers from Philips Semiconductors will present a new CCD (charge-coupled device) image sensor for digital cameras that packs in six million pixels. That's four million pixels more than high-end digital cameras today. According to Philips, the resolution of the six million-pixel CCD is comparable to conventional 35mm film, a parity that the digital imaging world has long sought.

Rather than presenting new electronic devices, several companies plan to present new processes for building them. For example, Toshiba is working with air. It turns out that gaps of air in silicon are excellent insulators, and researchers have figured out how to manipulate silicon atoms to form air pockets of desired shapes and sizes. In a sense, they've figured out how to build nothing.

Much of the discussion at the conference will focus on the challenges researchers face in trying to make smaller and smaller transistors. As chip components scale down to atomic dimensions, leakage of current and undesirable electrical phenomena have an increased effect. Although much progress has been made in packing more transistors on a chip while keeping overall dimensions the same, the industry may be approaching the point where some of these problems will become insoluble.

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