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Moore's Law limit hit by 2014?

The high cost of semiconductor manufacturing equipment is making continued chipmaking advancements too expensive, threatening Moore's Law, according to iSuppli.

Moore's Law may lapse by 2014, according to iSuppli. The high cost of chip manufacturing--not just the impossibly smaller geometries--may be the biggest threat.

Gordon Moore, former chairman and CEO of Intel
Gordon Moore, former chairman and CEO of Intel Intel

Moore's Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, states that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubles roughly every two years. For more than four decades, chip geometries have gotten smaller and smaller, allowing Moore's Law to remain on track.

By 2014, however, the high cost of semiconductor manufacturing equipment will threaten Moore's Law, "altering the fundamental economics of the industry," according to a report released on Tuesday by iSuppli.

"The usable limit for semiconductor process technology will be reached when chip process geometries shrink to be smaller than 20 nanometers (nm), to 18nm nodes," said Len Jelinek, director and chief analyst, semiconductor manufacturing, for iSuppli. "At those nodes (levels), the industry will start getting to the point where semiconductor manufacturing tools are too expensive to depreciate with volume production, i.e., their costs will be so high, that the value of their lifetime productivity can never justify it."

While further advances in shrinking process geometries can be achieved after the 20-nanometer to 18-nanometer level, Moore's Law will no longer drive volume semiconductor production, iSuppli said.

As a yardstick, Intel is currently in the process of moving to a 32-nanometer manufacturing process. While Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC)--the world's largest contract chip manufacturer--has moved to 40-nanometer for chips it makes for companies such as Nvidia.

There are examples of companies that have already found chipmaking prohibitively expensive. Facing possible bankruptcy, Advanced Micro Devices eventually spun off its chipmaking operations. Some Asia-based memory chipmakers have also faced possible extinction because they couldn't invest the staggering sums of money necessary to update production facilities.

The end of Moore's Law has been prophesied more than a few times in the past but chip equipment cost isn't the only thing conspiring against the law. Exponential growth in every industry eventually has to come to an end, according to an April EE Times report quoting IBM Fellow Carl Anderson. He cited railroads and speed increases in the aircraft industry as examples where exponential growth eventually petered out.

"A generation or two of continued exponential growth will likely continue only for leading-edge chips such as multicore microprocessors, but more designers are finding that everyday applications do not require the latest physical designs," Anderson said in the EE Times' report.

Until 2014, however, the race continues. Globalfoundries, the joint company owned by AMD and Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala Development, said Tuesday that "the semiconductor industry is celebrated for overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to continue the trend toward smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient products" and, in partnership with IBM, announced research that will enable the continued scaling of semiconductor components to the 22-nanometer level and beyond.

And Intel on Thursday will show off new research that will demonstrate the company's latest advancements with its chip manufacturing technology.