Chip companies entering their metal period

Intel, IBM and AMD plan to unveil chips built using new materials, marking a historic shift away from traditional transistor ingredients. Intel shows off Penryn chips

The chip industry is changing the recipe for its transistors to continue improving performance for another generation.

For almost 40 years, chipmakers have been building transistor gates--the basic switch in a transistor--out of silicon. But Intel, IBM and Advanced Micro Devices now plan to introduce new materials for transistor gates that significantly cut power leakage while dramatically improving performance, company executives said this week in separate announcements.

Silicon Valley will not have to be renamed, as silicon remains the basic material for the chip and that's not changing anytime soon. However, the gates themselves will now be made out of metal, and a thin layer that sits between the gate and the rest of the transistor--called a gate oxide--will also use a different building block.

"When you've been using silicon dioxide and polysilicon gates for 40 years and make that jump to a different set of materials, and surpass that performance, it's quite an achievement," said Mark Bohr, an Intel senior fellow and director of the company's advanced transistor research.

Intel plans to use the materials in its Penryn family of chips scheduled for introduction later this year and built with Intel's 45-nanometer manufacturing technology. It running on those chips on Thursday for a group of reporters and analysts.

"This really speaks to the level of maturity that we've now gotten from the process," said Intel CEO Paul Otellini, during a briefing for reporters at Intel's headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. "When they first described this to me, as a layman, I thought, 'this couldn't possibly work.' And you've seen what they've done," he said, gesturing at a row of servers and desktops running the 45-nanometer Penryn family of chips with the new transistor technology.

"When you've been using silicon dioxide and polysilicon gates for 40 years and make that jump to a different set of materials, and surpass that performance, it's quite an achievement."
--Mark Bohr, Intel senior fellow

IBM and AMD also plan to use metal gates and high-k gate oxides when they are ready to start building chips using 45-nanometer technology in 2008, said Bernie Meyerson, chief technology officer of IBM's chip group. (A material designated as "high-k" means it can hold more electrical charge than other materials.) IBM and AMD have an agreement to collaborate on research into future chipmaking techniques. The two companies also worked on the advance with Toshiba and Sony, IBM's partners on the Cell processor inside the Playstation 3.

"For us, it's an extraordinary time. This is an enormous departure from the previous history," Meyerson said. IBM has chips running in its manufacturing plants using the new transistors, he said.

Transistors operate when electrical current either flows or doesn't flow through the channel of the transistor. So, they are either "on" or "off," the mechanical representation of the 0s and 1s that make up basic computer language. To shut the gate, a voltage is applied and current is prevented from moving through the channel.

Every two years or so, the chip industry finds ways to build smaller transistors, allowing chipmakers to cram more and more transistors onto a single chip. This improves performance and makes sure Intel keeps co-founder Gordon Moore an honest man for another generation of products.

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