HP: For circuits, swap silicon for molecules

Company says it has a substitute for the transistor that's far smaller and, potentially, far cheaper to produce. Image: Molecular montage

With a recent breakthrough in making circuits with molecules, Hewlett-Packard hopes to change chip history and expand its own role in the process.

Researchers from the Palo Alto, Calif.-based computing giant have created devices called crossbar latches that can be used to perform calculations in microprocessors, the same function silicon transistors now have.

The difference is that crossbar latches--which consist of a grid of microscopic wires linked by molecules at their intersections--are far smaller and, potentially, far cheaper to make because they are produced using processes more akin to inkjet printing rather than the ornate etching processes required for today's chips. Both factors give chipmakers an opportunity to dodge some of the technical difficulties and painful costs awaiting them in coming decade.

HP has already shown how crossbar latches can be used in memory.

"This is the final piece of the puzzle for building a molecular computer," said Phil Kuekes, senior computer architect and primary inventor at HP's Quantum Science Research (QSR) unit.

Adoption of crossbars across the industry could also lead to royalties for HP, which may try to license it, added Stan Williams, director of the QSR. HP is so confident of its technology that is aiming to get elements of crossbar technology incorporated into 32-nanometer chips, which will hit commercially in 2011 or 2012. The company will try to get its technology ensconced in industry road maps guiding equipment makers and semiconductor designers.

"There is a recognition that there is going to have to be innovation," Williams said. "We'd like to introduce some aspect of it into that (32-nanometer) node."

HP, however, isn't trying to find a way out of the conflicts many semiconductor designers face. Researchers from the South Korea, Japan and the United States--including IBM and Intel--will next week publish papers at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference detailing ideas for new types of chips and transistors.

"The single biggest advantage we have is that we can do it now," Kuekes said. "We think we can make complex devices sooner."

Although experts and pundits have declared the imminent death of Moore's Law for three decades, the end appears to be in sight. The principle, which states that chipmakers can double the number of transistors on a silicon chip every two years, has enabled the industry to shrink the size and cost of things like computers and cell phones while improving their performance.

Unfortunately, traditional silicon transistors can't be shrunk in size much longer. Circa 2021, there won't be enough atoms inside

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