To preserve Moore's Law, Intel abandons conventional transistor design

To preserve Moore's Law, Intel abandons conventional transistor design

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News & Events - Engineering News

April 26, 2012

With its latest generation of chips, Intel has once again shown its ability to continually improve processor speed, although doing so has become markedly more difficult.

Moore's Law, first posited by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore nearly 50 years ago, states that the number of transistors on a chip will double approximately every two years. The theory has supported engineering research and development within the sector over the past half century, as scientists have produced increasingly sophisticated chips.

The technology sector's ability to continually engineer chips with more and more computing power has had far-reaching repercussions. Companies such as Apple and Dell, for example, rely on such advances in chip technology to help sell their products, as consumers have grown accustomed to purchasing electronics that are significantly faster than their predecessors.

Engineers have struggled to maintain such a blistering pace, particularly over the past few years. Still, Intel's latest generation of chips upholds Moore's Law, the result of years of painstaking research. The company launched the new line of chips, dubbed Ivy Bridge, this week. They are the first such chips with features as small as 22 nanometers, MIT's Technology Review reports.

Ivy Bridge chips offer users 37 percent more processing speed than their counterparts. They also require roughly 50 percent less energy than conventional models, underscoring how scientists were able to design a chip that could significantly outperform today's technology.

Intel's latest line of chips differs from its forebears, as engineers embedded each model with roughly double the number of transistors implemented in the firm's prior generation of chips. In total, each Ivy Bridge chip features approximately 1.4 billion transistors spread out across a 160 square millimeter die. The last iteration of Intel's chip technology was equipped with 1.16 billion transistors on a 212 square millimeter die.

To accomplish the herculean task of embedding more transistors in its chips, Intel had to overhaul the very blueprint of the technology. Engineers at the California-based company added an extra layer to the chip's architecture, which allowed them to install nearly 300 million additional transistors on each model. In the past, scientists simply stacked layers on top of one another, but such a design could no longer sustain the pace of change.

Intel researchers said the new three-dimension transistors used in the Ivy Bridge chips have a "tri-gate" design. Unlike transistors used in the past, the new tri-gate models were tweaked by scientists to improve chip performance. Conventional transistors consist of a channel that connects electrodes that act as receivers for the incoming and outgoing currents, with the space between them known as the channel. A third electrode, the gate, functions in a supervisory role, monitoring the flow of current.

To help augment the number of transistors they could install in each chip, scientists redesigned the channel's architecture. The channel in the transistors used in an Ivy Bridge chip is not flat, but, rather, extends upward toward the gate. As a result of their tri-gate design, the transistors are capable of more effectively establishing an electrical connection between the layers, according to the news provider.

Engineers have for some time theorized that such a transistor design could help circumvent many of the issues plaguing the development of ever-faster chips. Mark Bohr, an Intel executive who ensures new chip designs could be manufactured efficiently, said the company decided to move ahead with the tri-gate approach in 2008, after studying the viability of the method for nearly a decade.

"It's one thing to make a lab device, but a very different thing to make sure it can produce chips at low cost and high volume," he noted.

What's more, he affirmed that because the company is reusing many of its existing manufacturing schemes, the company's Ivy Bridge chips cost only marginally more to produce than their predecessors.


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