Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Intel says it has secret materials that make chips faster and smaller

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 27, 2007

[Intel is an SVW sponsor.]

[UPDATE: Please also see: IBM says Intel not alone in solving 45nm chip roadblock]

People mistake Intel for being a microprocessor manufacturer. That's just an application of what it does best: it knows how to make the world's most advanced chips in massive quantities.

Late last week Intel briefed reporters and analysts on what is likely the most significant breakthrough in chip making since the late 1960s.

Intel said it had discovered materials that would enable it to make the world's tiniest chips in high volumes--and place it years ahead of competitors seeking to do the same.

With the its new materials, Intel is able to make chips with geometries of 45 nanometers, half the size of most leading edge chips at 90nm.

Intel shares a lot of its chip research but it said it will keep these materials secret. If the information leaked out, it would enable competitors to shave years off their R&D efforts and enter lucrative chip markets years earlier.

Quite rightly, Intel is racing to take advantage of this lead. It is building three giant chip fabs which will use its secret process on silicon wafers the size of large dinner plates, 300mm (12 inch) across.

By the end of this year two fabs will be completed and ramping into high volume production, closely followed by a third in Israel, in early 2008--all using this advanced chip making process. This means servers, desktops, and notebooks  will run faster and cooler and will be less expensive.

With more smaller chips being able to be squeezed onto giant silicon wafers Intel will be able to do a combination of several things:

  • Existing chip designs will run faster because of shorter distances between transistors.
  • Power consumption is reduced because of the smaller size of the chip.
  • More transistors can be crammed into the same sized space which means larger memory caches-a performance bottleneck.
  • Manufacturing costs are dramatically reduced. It costs about the same to process a silicon wafer in any process. More chips per wafer means more product for the same cost. Intel can choose to lower prices or pocket the productivity increase. (It always lowers prices but it can decide the rate.)

 

Intel makes microprocessors because they are the most profitable high volume application of its core ability: to make chips cheaper, faster, smaller, and in vast quantities.

All of the above means that rival Advanced Micro Devices is in for a tough time. It won market shares against Intel in server markets because it spotted a trend in low power consuming microprocessors. That was great because it brought Intel into that market and now server buyers have a choice of two very good server chip families.

Mind the Gap

But the gap between the two server product families is set to widen into a chasm. Quite simply, AMD cannot fight it out with Intel on the basis of design.

The chip business is always talking about making chips in smaller sizes because:

  • the laws of physics automatically provide faster performance by shrinking the size of chips.
  • the laws of economics provide greater profit margins by shrinking the size of chips.

AMD's manufacturing prowess is good but not great. Manufacturing prowess has historically been a highly volatile characteristic at AMD.

Yes, clever designs can boost performance incrementally, but fundamentally, it is the laws of physics that govern every performance characteristic of a chip. And the laws of physics can only be exploited by knowing how to manipulate the material world.

It is through chemistry that we manipulate the material world. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore is a chemist. Andy Grove has a degree in chemical engineering. (BTW, I  have a chemistry degree :-)

Moore was born in San Francisco, California. He received a B.S. degree in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1950 and a Ph.D. in Chemistry and Physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1954. (Source: Wikipedia.)

 

Chemistry is something that Intel knows very well. And like an alchemist of yore--it has succeeded in transforming baser materials into gold, lots of it, it is a highly profitable company with margins that sometimes approach those of a software company. 

I think it is safe to say that the chip industry uses more of the periodic table of elements in its production process than any other industry in the world. Because it has to, it has to develop new types of materials in order to make ever smaller chips.

Elements are the fundamental building blocks of the physical world. Elements combine to form material compounds, and each compound has specific physical characteristics.

The chip industry needs materials that can guide electrons at high speeds through an incredibly complex maze of wires just a few atoms wide.

But as everything shrinks in size, materials behave differently. For the chip industry to move to a smaller chip size, 45nm, it needed to find new materials that behave in the correct way.

Finding these materials for 45nm had stumped the industry. It threatened to slow Moore's Law.

Top chip experts had been predicting that 2010 would be the earliest date for a solution to be found. Which means Intel could very well be more than two years ahead...a huge achievement.

That's why Intel's discovery of these materials constitutes what must be the most valuable secret in the world today. Because it dramatically improves the fundamental performance of all silicon chips--the bedrock and building blocks of our current and future worlds.

A two or more year lead into the future is an incredible competitive advantage, imho.

 

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Additional info from Intel:

Intel's Transistor Technology Breakthrough Represents Biggest Change to Computer Chips In 40 Years ›

SANTA CLARA, Calif., Jan. 27, 2007 – In one of the biggest advancements in fundamental transistor design, Intel Corporation today revealed that it is using two dramatically new materials to build the insulating walls and switching gates of its 45 nanometer (nm) transistors.

Silicon

For over 30 years, Intel has been a leader in silicon technology, steadily doubling transistor counts to the beat of Moore's Law, consistently advancing logic processes for higher processor speeds and performance, and researching new materials and transistor architectures. Our history of innovation continues today, with new breakthroughs that are enabling new usage models and new business opportunities.

Logic processes ›

Find out how Intel's advanced logic processes improve performance while reducing power.

Moore's Law ›

Learn how the realization of Moore's Law delivers affordable computing to the world.

Energy-efficient performance ›

Discover how we're making performance energy-efficient while expanding capabilities.

Silicon research ›

As silicon technology approaches the physical limits of today's materials and processes, we're developing future technologies to ensure the continuation of Moore's Law.

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