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Moore says Moore's Law to hit wall

The industry's ability to shrink a microprocessor through improved manufacturing is going to start butting up against the size of atomic particles.

Moore's Law is coming into direct conflict with the law of nature. So says Gordon Moore.

Intel's chairman emeritus told an audience at the Intel Developer Forum today that the industry's ability to shrink a microprocessor through improved manufacturing processes is going to start butting up against the finite size of atomic particles. Barring a radical shift in microprocessor science, this means that the ability of the industry to double the computing power of a chip every 18 months (known as Moore's Law) may slow.

Moore in fact showed an electromagnetic image of a microprocessor made under Intel's currently cutting-edge ".25 micron" chip production technology, in which the individual atomic layers could be counted and identified.

"Some time in the next several years we get to some finite limits, but not before we get through five generations," Moore said. According to one study, the physical limitations could be reached by 2017.

"That's well beyond my shift," he quipped. "So someone else can do it."

In general, as chip production processes get smaller and smaller, more and more transistors can be crammed into a chip, which results in an increase in performance since new performance features can be added. Also, the chip's speed increases since the distance between the transistors is reduced. Intel is currently making most of its processors on a .35 micron process but is slowly moving production to the more advanced .25 process. The next step is to move to a .18 production process.

Moore noted that even before the manufacturing wall is hit, enormous challenges remain. Comparing a 200-MHz processor made on the mainstream .35 micron production process of today with a future 1000-MHz chip made on a future-generation .18 process, Moore noted that such a shift would double the size of the processor and shoot the power consumption up to 40 watts, a power consumption rating that would generate untenable amounts of heat.

To get power consumption down, a manufacturer would have to find a way to reduce voltage from a current measurement of 3.3 volts to half a volt. "And that's no fun," he said.

Improvements in manufacturing will also have profound consequences for the semiconductor industry, some of which may encroach upon the recently announced investigation of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) into the company's business dealings.

Moore, for instance, noted that as microprocessor circuits get smaller, more silicon real estate will be devoted to features that are now found as discrete hardware in a computer. Functions to be integrated onto the central silicon chip of the future--analagous to today's microprocessor--include modems, graphics chips, and memory control, according to a slide accompanying Moore's keynote.

Taking advantage of smaller technology "means you have to put more of the system on a chip," said Moore. "The technology swallows the customer's added value and gives it back to them free."

"System on a chip" is an expression Intel executives have assiduously avoided in the past. Instead, Intel has tried to emphasize that such complete systems actually hinder advances, forcing chipmakers to stay with lowest common denominator technology until all processor subsystems can achieve the same level of performance. Rival Cyrix has been using those terms to describe the future of its business.

Ironically, it is the ability of Intel to quickly move into--and then dominate--peripheral markets that has drawn the interest of the FTC, said sources.

Not mentioning the FTC investigation, Moore said, "It is not really the semiconductor manufacturer's desire to take all of the advances in a chip. I view this as the natural direction of the technology."

Also, Moore pointed out that in the future more complex chips will require vast amounts of additional capital. Observers elsewhere have noted that Intel's industry dominance in the past few years has been fueled by the company's accumulation of capital. Rivals like Advanced Micro Devices simply can't keep up with the same level of research and development, say analysts.

For example, a chip plant for making .25 micron chips now costs between $2 and $2.5 billion to construct. For future .18 micron chip plants, the cost will jump to between $3 and $4 billion, according to Moore.