Intel Says Chips Will Run Faster, Using Less Power


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

January 27, 2007

Intel Says Chips Will Run Faster, Using Less Power

Intel, the world¹s largest chip maker, has overhauled the basic building block 
of the information age, paving the way for a new generation of faster and more 
energy-efficient processors.

Company researchers said the advance represented the most significant change in 
the materials used to manufacture silicon chips since Intel pioneered the modern
integrated-circuit transistor more than four decades ago.

The microprocessor chips, which Intel plans to begin making in the second half 
of this year, are designed for computers but they could also have applications 
in consumer devices. Their combination of processing power and energy efficiency
could make it possible, for example, for cellphones to play video at length ‹ a 
demanding digital task ‹ with less battery drain.

The work by Intel overcomes a potentially crippling technical obstacle that has 
arisen as a transistor¹s tiny switches are made ever smaller: their tendency to 
leak current as the insulating material gets thinner. The Intel advance uses new
metallic alloys in the insulation itself and in adjacent components.

Word of the announcement, which is planned for Monday, touched off a war of 
dueling statements as I.B.M. rushed to announce that it was on the verge of a 
similar advance.

I.B.M. executives said their company was planning to introduce a comparable type
of transistor in the first quarter of 2008.

Many industry analysts say that Intel retains a six-month to nine-month lead 
over the rest of the industry, but I.B.M. executives disputed the claim and said
the two companies were focused on different markets in the computing industry.

The I.B.M. technology has been developed in partnership with Advanced Micro 
Devices, Intel¹s main rival. Modern microprocessor and memory chips are created 
from an interconnected fabric of hundreds of millions and even billions of the 
tiny switches that process the ones and zeros that are the foundation of digital

They are made using a manufacturing process that has been constantly improving 
for more than four decades. Today transistors, for example, are made with 
systems that can create wires and other features that are finer than the 
resolving power of a single wavelength of light.

The Intel announcement is new evidence that the chip maker is maintaining the 
pace of Moore¹s Law, the technology axiom that states that the number of 
transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years, giving rise to a constant
escalation of computing power at lower costs.

³This is evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, but it will generate a big 
sigh of relief,² said Vivek Subramanian, associate professor of electrical 
engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

For several decades there have been repeated warnings about the impending end of
the Moore¹s Law pace for chip makers. In response the semiconductor industry has
repeatedly found its way around fundamental technical obstacles, inventing 
techniques that at times seem to defy basic laws of physics.

The chip industry measures its progress by manufacturing standards defined by a 
width of one of the smallest features of a transistor for each generation. 
Currently much of the industry is building chips in what is known as 
90-nanometer technology. At that scale, about 1,000 transistors would fit in the
width of a human hair. Intel began making chips at 65 nanometers in 2005, about 
nine months before its closest competitors.

Now the company is moving on to the next stage of refinement, defined by a 
minimum feature size of 45 nanometers. Other researchers have recently reported 
progress on molecular computing technologies that could reduce the scale even 
further by the end of the decade.

Intel¹s imminent advance to 45 nanometers will have a huge impact on the 
industry, Mr. Subramanian said. ³People have been working on it for over a 
decade, and this is tremendously significant that Intel has made it work,² he 

Intel¹s advance was in part in finding a new insulator composed of an alloy of 
hafnium, a metallic element that has previously been used in filaments and 
electrodes and as a neutron absorber in nuclear power plants. They will replace 
the use of silicon dioxide ‹ essentially the material that window glass is made 
of, but only several atoms thick.

Intel is also shifting to new metallic alloy materials ‹ it is not identifying 
them specifically ‹ in transistor components known as gates, which sit directly 
on top of the insulator. These are ordinarily made from a particular form of 
silicon called polysilicon.

The new approach to insulation appears at least temporarily to conquer one of 
the most significant obstacles confronting the semiconductor industry: the 
tendency of tiny switches to leak electricity as they are reduced in size. The 
leakage makes chips run hotter and consume more power.

Many executives in the industry say that Intel is still recovering from a 
strategic wrong turn it made when the company pushed its chips to extremely high
clock speeds ‹ the ability of a processor to calculate more quickly. That 
obsession with speed at any cost left the company behind its competitors in 
shifting to low-power alternatives.

Now Intel is coming back. Although the chip maker led in the speed race for many
years, the company has in recent years shifted its focus to low-power 
microprocessors that gain speed by breaking up each chip into multiple computing
³cores.² In its new 45-nanometer generation, Intel will gain the freedom to seek
either higher performance or substantially lower power, while at the same time 
increasing the number of cores per chip.

³They can adjust the transistor for high performance or low power,² said David 
Lammers, director of, a Web portal for technical professionals.

The Intel development effort has gone on in a vast automated factory in 
Beaverton, Ore., that the company calls D1D. It features huge open manufacturing
rooms that are kept surgically clean to prevent dust from contaminating the 
silicon wafers that are whisked around the factory by a robotic conveyor system.

The technology effort was led by Mark T. Bohr, a longtime Intel physicist who is
director of process architecture and integration. The breakthrough, he said, was
in finding a way to deal with the leakage of current. ³Up until five years ago, 
leakage was thought to increase with each generation,² he said.

Several analysts said that the technology advance could give Intel a meaningful 
advantage over competitors in the race to build ever more powerful 

³It¹s going to be a nightmare for Intel¹s competitors,² said G. Dan Hutcheson, 
chief executive of VLSI Research. ³A lot of Mark Bohr¹s counterparts are going 
to wake up in terror.²

An I.B.M. executive said yesterday that the company had also chosen hafnium as 
its primary insulator, but that it would not release details of its new process 
until technical papers are presented at coming conferences.

³It¹s the difference between can openers and Ferraris,² said Bernard S. 
Meyerson, vice president and chief technologist for the systems and technology 
group at I.B.M. He insisted that industry analysts who have asserted that Intel 
has a technology lead are not accurate and that I.B.M. had simply chosen to 
deploy its new process in chips that are part of high-performance systems aimed 
at the high end of the computer industry.

Intel said it had already manufactured prototype microprocessor chips in the new
45-nanometer process that run on three major operating systems: Windows, Mac OS 
X and Linux.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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