Intel aims for faster, cooler transistors

Indium antimonide doesn't exactly have a ring to it, but the compound could help chipmakers advance in the next decade.

Intel plans to unfurl a prototype transistor this week that could help Moore's Law--and the semiconductor industry as a whole--continue to advance in the next decade.

The transistor, designed by Intel and Britain's Qinetiq, is similar in structure to a traditional transistor in that it comes with a source (the place where electrons start) and a drain (their final destination) connected by a channel. A gate controls the flow of electrons across the channel; acutely controlling this flow from the source and drain determines the ones and zeros of computing.

But, unlike in traditional transistors, the channel isn't made from silicon. Instead, it consists of indium antimonide, a compound made from the elements indium (In) and anitmony (Sb). In chemical terms, the two elements are known as III-V elements because of the row where they appear on the Periodic Table of the Elements. Silicon--Si--appears in column IV. The proximity means that indium and antimony share similar characteristics with silicon, but still behave differently.

Intel says that replacing silicon with indium antimonide cuts power consumption by 10 times while boosting performance by 50 percent.

Just as important, III-V materials can potentially be grafted onto established manufacturing processes. This could make transistors easier and more economical to adopt for mass manufacturing than concepts like carbon nanotube transistors and silicon nanowires.

Chips featuring these transistors could hit the market by 2015, an Intel spokesman said. The experimental transistors right now rest on a substrate of gallium arsenide, an expensive material used in some communication chips. The company will next try to plant these III-V transistors onto a silicon substrate.

Intel has said before that III-V materials are one of the leading ideas for keeping Moore's Law alive. The famous dictum states that the number of transistors on a chip can be doubled every two years. This doubling is largely accomplished by shrinking the size of the transistors and leads to gains in performance. Smaller transistors, however, leak electricity and dissipate heat, two major problems for computer manufacturers and chip designers. Leakage and heat have, in turn, prompted researchers to seek out new materials and transistor structures to counter these aftereffects.

Intel and Qinetiq have shown off a similar III-V transistor before with a channel length of 200 nanometers. The transistor described in this week's paper measures 85 nanometers in length. Chips now made on the 90-nanometer process sport gates that stretch approximately 50 nanometers.

The paper describing the transistor will be presented Wednesday at the International Electron Devices Meeting taking place in Washington, D.C.

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