As chip speeds fizzle, Intel and Berkeley offer spintronics fix

Researchers tout smaller electronics that consume lower power in a Nature paper.

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Stephen Shankland
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Intel's Robert Noyce building at the company's Santa Clara, California, headquarters

Intel's Robert Noyce building at the company's Santa Clara, California, headquarters

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Intel has made progress on a technology called spintronics that could boost your phone, laptop and smartwatch as conventional chip technology runs out of steam.

Researchers at Intel and the University of California, Berkeley on Monday described spintronics work that could shrink chip component sizes to a fifth their current size while cutting power consumption by a factor of 10 to 30. If successfully commercialized -- and that's a big if -- the technology could help bring some excitement back to a chip business that no longer delivers steady improvements in processing power each year.

Today's computer chips use tiny on-off switches called transistors that process data by starting or stopping the flow of electrons. Spintronics offers a way to perform similar work, but with smaller, more energy-efficient components.

"We are trying to trigger a wave of innovation in industry and academia on what the next transistor-like option should look like," said project leader Sasikanth Manipatruni of Intel's Components Research group in a statement. He's the lead author of a paper on the work published Monday in the journal Nature.

With billions of dollars in processor sales at stake -- not to mention everything that relies on computer brains -- it's no wonder researchers are hunting for other options for chip technology.

Spintronics is far from ready to pop into your next phone chip, but Intel believes it should be ready when today's chip manufacturing approach no longer can be miniaturized. The company is excited not only by the spintronics power and size possibilities, it's also pleased by the projection that it'll benefit from its own future of miniaturization and about finding a design that encompasses all the basic needs of computer chips like today's technology, called complementary metal oxide semiconductor, or CMOS.

"Basically, this is the first time we found a technology architecture -- memory, interconnect and logic -- that works for integrated circuits beyond CMOS," Manipatruni told CNET.

Spin is a quantum mechanical property that can make electrons behave like tiny magnets with north and south poles. The orientation of that field -- up or down -- can be manipulated to store and process data. The Intel-Berkeley team's paper is about the latter idea, using spintronics to create computer logic.

It might be new to you, but spintronics has been a promising avenue for processor research for years. Actually making spintronics-powered computer devices practical and affordable, though, is still years away. Intel often works in partnership with academic researchers for early-stage, basic research that's not yet ready for manufacturing.

Sidestepping today's chip limits

For decades, chips relied on CMOS. The steady shrinking of CMOS electronics charted by Moore's Law, though, has inevitable limits as components get ever closer to the size of individual atoms.

Indeed, Intel has struggled with that miniaturization after leading the industry for decades. But even chipmaking rivals like Samsung and TSMC that aren't stumbling eventually will run into those limits.

Crystals of bismuth iron oxide can be manipulated to store and process data with a technology called spintronics.

Crystals of bismuth iron oxide can be manipulated to store and process data with a technology called spintronics.

University of California, Berkeley

The Intel-Berkeley work, called a magneto-electric spin-orbit (MESO) logic device, involves spin that's housed in unusual materials called multiferroics. Specifically, it uses crystal lattices of oxygen, bismuth and iron atoms that offer favorable electrical and magnetic properties so outside forces can store information and read it later.

It requires much less power than CMOS transistors to switch the crystals from one state to another -- from 0 to 1 or back. And because they retain the information without needing to be actively powered, they offer a more energy-efficient sleep state when idle, the researchers said.

Recent speed boosts to conventional chips have come in part because chip engineers have been investing in special-purpose chip engines, like those for graphics or AI calculations, but a boost in general-purpose computing speed would help speed up software more broadly.

First published Dec. 3, 2:39 p.m. PT.
Update Dec. 4 at 9:14 a.m.:
Adds further comment from Intel.

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