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'High-rise' chips sneak on market

Chips with stacked transistors have been floating around the theoretical realm for years. Now they're appearing in products.

"High-rise," three-dimensional semiconductors--an idea that has been percolating since the early '80s--have quietly started making their way into consumer products.

Despite a few delays, Matrix Semiconductor is now selling its 3D memory/data storage chips. A consumer product that contains the first generation of the company's chips has started to ship in Japan, and products containing an improved version of the technology will begin to ship in sizable volumes in North America in the fall, according to Dan Steere, vice president of sales and marketing at Matrix. Steere wouldn't specify which company or what type of product is using the chips.

The idea behind Matrix's chip is to cheat Moore's Law, the dictum that states the number of transistors will double on a chip every two years.

In the vast majority of semiconductors, the transistors--the tiny off/on switches--sit on a flat plane. Shrinking the transistors allows manufacturers to increase the number on a given chip. Shrinking also reduces a chip's surface area, and hence the cost of manufacturing it, because more chips can be popped out of a single silicon wafer.

In the memory chips from Matrix, planes of transistors can be stacked, which reduces the surface area of the chip and allows more chips to be produced from a single wafer. Ideally, manufacturers get the cost savings associated with shrinking transistors without having to invest in new lithography equipment.

The company, in fact, uses trailing-edge technology to produce its chips, but the chips still cost less than flash and the other types of memory used in handhelds today, according to Steere. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. manufactures the chips on behalf of Matrix.

The 3D idea, though, moved fitfully. Originally, Matrix was supposed to start delivering chips in 2002.

"The biggest lesson in this...was that it is easy to make one of something but difficult to make millions of them," Steere said. "There were significant changes to the process and design."

Though Steere wouldn't identify which company has adopted its chips, a likely candidate is Nintendo. The Japanese giant

Nintendo has a new version of its handheld coming to North America in the holiday season.

"We will have a customer shipping products in retail this year in high volumes," said Steere.

Matrix's chips, which, according to Steere, will initially be used to store pre-recorded content like games or songs, differ from conventional memory chips in that their content, once recorded, can't be erased. Small jolts of electricity purposely blow a fuse embedded into the transistors. Static electricity is a major liability for semiconductors--that's why they're built with spark arrestors. Matrix is essentially taking advantage of the natural phenomenon, according to Tom Lee, a company founder and professor of engineering at Stanford.