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Lab promises a faster, smarter chip

Researchers say they can make chips ten times faster with 1,000 times more memory.

    Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory say they have invented a new way to engrave components onto computer chips that will make them run ten times faster and give them 1,000 times more memory than today's generation.

    Many research groups have been trying to create new manufacturing methodologies and technologies that will overcome the limitations of today's techniques, techniques that scientists say have squeezed just about everything they can out of a piece of silicon.

    "The current technologies that are used right now are not extendable to make chips smaller and faster," said Gary Sommargren, a physicist with Livermore Laboratory who has been working on the project since 1989. "The whole purpose of this project is to look into new technologies that will do that."

    Sommargren says the chips will be made by using extreme ultraviolet light and will most likely hit the market by the year 2007. Already, he added, semiconductor manufacturers are working with the lab to further this process.

    "A lot of questions about whether the technology would work have been partially answered, and it looks like right now it's a viable technology to proceed into a commercial sector," he said. "So the Intels and the AMDs of chip making are extremely interested now and are partners in this project."

    EUV has a wavelength 20 times shorter than today's technology, reducing line widths or feature sizes on chips from .35 microns to .1 micron and below. (A micron is a millionth of a meter.)

    Chips are made by projecting patterns on silicon wafers, and the size or details that go onto the chips are determined by the wavelength of light. Visible light is currently used to make computer chips, but EUV has a smaller wavelength so can be used to make smaller and consequently faster components.

    Computer prices will drastically decrease if and when this technology becomes commercialized, said James Glaze, vice president of technology programs for the Semiconductor Industry Association. "Every generation of new semiconductor chips provide more capability at lower costs so computer become more powerful and the prices decrease," he said. "We get more computing power for the amount of money we spend each generation."

    Over the next few years, the lab will focus on developing a machine that will produce chips with this technology. Companies like Intel will then evaluate the machine and offer input. Other companies that are offering feedback are include AT&T, Advanced Micro Devices, Ultratech Stepper, Jmar Industries, Tropel, Micrion, and KLA Instruments.

    Other labs are also competing to be the one that creates the next generation of chip-manufacturing technology.

    Researchers at Bell Labs, the research and development arm of Lucent Technologies, recently announced that they have developed an electron beam system that would be able to place four times as many transistors on a chip of the same size as today's smallest chip. And scientists at Leicester University in the United Kingdom say they have developed an X-ray lens that is able to place 100 times the number of components, according to a report in New Scientist magazine.

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