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4-gigabit memory chips?

Samsung wraps up development on a process that would enable production of memory chips with 60 times the capacity of today's DRAMs.

Samsung Electronics has wrapped up development work on an advanced manufacturing process that would enable the production of memory processors with more than 60 times the capacity of today's 64-megabit DRAM chips.

Earlier this week, the South Korean firm presented details of a 0.13-micron semiconductor manufacturing process to a conference in Hawaii.

Chips made under the 0.13-micron process would be smaller and more densely packed with transistors than current processors. Under this process, a semiconductor maker could fit as much as 4 gigabits of memory onto a single chip, far more memory than manufacturers can squeeze onto chips today.

Currently, the 0.25-micron process is cutting edge, although Intel and others aim to bring an 0.18-micron process online in the next few years. Samsung claims that it is the first company to get to a .13-micron process.

Samsung further said the new process can be adopted to existing products, meaning chipmakers and chipmaking equipment firms wouldn't have to change over to new technologies.

The technology could lead to better and less expensive memory. The 4-gigabit memory chip is three generations more advanced than the 64-megabit chip now employed in high-end servers and workstations. One 4-gigabit chip equals 500MB of memory.

After the PC completes the transition from 16-megabit to 64-megabit chips later this year, memory will move onto 256-megabit chips and then 1-gigabit chips. Chip technology traditionally advances by a factor of four, although some manufacturers are planning to produce 128-megabit chips.

On the production side, manufacturers have assumed that current lithography technology (used for etching the lines where transistors are laid into silicon wafers) will become antiquated by the time the industry reaches 0.13 microns, because those lines cannot be thinner than the light beams used to etch them. A human hair is about 100 microns thick.

But Samsung says its technology can be used with current lithography processes. "The breakthrough will reduce the amount of risk associated with massive new investments in the semiconductor industry, and is expected to bring the 4-gigabit [memory chip] to market at least three years earlier than previously expected," Samsung said in a statement.

The announcement comes as good news for Samsung, which earlier this week suspended production of 16-megabit memory chips (called DRAMs, or dynamic random access memory) because the cost of production is currently greater than the selling price. Other manufacturers have taken similar steps, as the memory chip industry is in the midst of a glut.