Intel's major chip breakthrough

The tiny transistor that promises to spawn 10GHz chips in five years time

A breakthrough in microprocessor technology promises a ten fold increase in processor speed over the next decade according to Intel Monday.

The chip giant's latest, and tiniest invention is a CMOS transistor just 30 nanometres in size and three atomic layers thick. Transistors are the key ingredients of microprocessors and control their efficiency: smaller transistors make for more complicated and faster microprocessors.

Intel says the development of the new transistor paves the way for newer faster microprocessors and predicts that within the next five to ten years it will break the ten billion cycles per second (10GHz) barrier with processors running on less than one volt. Intel says the new technology opens the door to new computing possibilities, predicting that the chips could be used to power devices previously confined to science-fiction, such as real-time voice translators.

"It's discoveries like these that make me excited about the future," says Dr Sunlin Chou, vice president and general manager of Intel's Technology and Manufacturing Group. "It's one thing to achieve a great technological breakthrough. It's another to have one that is practical and will change everyone's lives."

The development of the transistor seems to fit into Moore's law, which states that microprocessor speed will double every 18 months. "Every so often you get a big step forward in semiconductor technology," says principal analyst within Gartner's semiconductor group, Richard Gordon. "It's all part of semiconductor evolution."

Gordon says that reducing transistor size to this level while maintaining its efficiency is a significant step. "Nothing's ever plain sailing, but an announcement such as this means we're making progress in that direction."

Intel hopes to bring commercial product to the market based on the new design as soon as possible. "Our research proves that these smaller transistors behave in the same way as today's devices and shows there are no fundamental barriers to producing these devices in high volume in the future," says Dr Gerald Marcyk, director of Intel's Components Research Lab, Technology and Manufacturing Group in a statement.

Thirty nanometres are equivalent to 0.03 microns. Most manufacturers are able to develop chips with 0.18-micron elements and are expected to start making 0.13-micron chips in late 2001.

Processors manufactured with this technology promise to be ten times more complex than Intel's recently launched Pentium 4 range. While the Pentium 4 has 42 million transistors and runs at 1.5 Ghz, future Intel chips could have 400 million transistors and reach speeds of 10GHz.

Today's announcement will be encouraging for Intel, which recently announced that revenues would fall short for the fourth quarter.

See Chips Central for daily hardware news, including interactive roadmaps for AMD, Intel and Transmeta.

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