Ever since the birth of the transistor, researchers have wondered how small the logical building-blocks of computer chips could get and still work. Until recently, scientists estimated that chip makers had as few as six years to find new chip materials to keep up the pace of miniaturization.
On Thursday, they got an extension. A team of researchers from Bell Labs, the research division of Lucent Technologies stated in Nature magazine that the industry wouldn't actually hit the size limit until 2012.
The size-limiting structure on chips is a layer of insulating material known as the gate oxide. "As you shrink the chips down, the gate oxide has to shrink as well," said David Muller, a materials physicist with the Bell Labs research group. "Since it is the smallest feature, it is running out of space the fastest."
Today, processors made by manufacturing equipment that can create details as small as 0.25 microns, like the Pentium III and K6 chips, have a gate oxide that is 25 atoms thick. By 2012, when chips are made using a 0.06-micron process, that will shrink down to 5 atoms thick. At that point, new materials will be needed. "After 2012, we will have to switch to alternative materials for gate oxide," said Muller.
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