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Clinton touts "supercomputer on a chip"

President Clinton backs federal funding for research into a "supercomputer on a chip," a billion-transistor microprocessor that would dwarf the Pentium II.

Speaking at a White House awards ceremony today, President Clinton touted federal funding for research into a "supercomputer on a chip," a billion-transistor microprocessor that would dwarf today's most powerful processor.

Clinton's comments, made during the presentation of the 1997 Medals of Science and Technology, anticipated next month's announcement of a cooperative program involving the federal government, a joint company set up by the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), and leading U.S. research universities. Through the Defense Department, the federal government will initially contribute $7 million to supercomputer-on-a-chip research, while private concerns will pitch in funding on a three-to-one basis.

Compared with the billion-transistor processor that the plan envisions, the Pentium II chip contains about 7.5 million transistors.

Since the 1960s, the semiconductor industry has advanced according to "Moore's Law," Intel founder Gordon Moore's observation that transistor capacity (and therefore processing power) doubles every 12 to 18 months. But after 2005 Moore's Law could become obsolete, because the lithography technology that's used to etch the lines for transistors to be placed on a silicon wafer is reaching its physical limitations. "Mask" lines can't be made thinner than the wavelength of light making the images.

The current process yields chips with lines 0.25 microns across, and will be used to make the next generation of chips, with lines as thin as 0.18 microns.

The search for a new lithography technology has been under way for some time. The U.S. government is already participating in three separate projects: the first involves Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, and the country's premier research laboratories in an effort to tap "extreme ultraviolet" technology; the second is an IBM venture into the use of x-rays; and the third regards Lucent Technologies research into ion electrons.

The European Union is also currently funding a cooperative government-industry venture.

The U.S. initiative to be announced next month, dubbed the "Focus Center" program by the SIA, will cluster related laboratory work undertaken at different research universities in an effort to speed the development of the individual technologies needed to create a supercomputer-on-a-chip.

"This technology, once developed, will make possible everything from faster, cheaper home computers to advanced weapons systems," President Clinton noted in a short address telling of $96 million in federal research-and-development spending.

About $7 million will go to the supercomputer-on-a-chip research, and another $7 million to other microelectronics research, via the Defense Department's Government-Industry Cosponsored University Research program. The balance, $82 million, is assigned to the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program.

The initial phase of the Focus Center program calls for two two-year pilot programs, one studying interconnect technology (the spacing between the mask lines) and the other chip design and testing. By year five of the program, SIA anticipates that each of six Focus Centers will be funded to the tune of $10 million per year.

The federal government's commitment to spending in later years is a bit murky because of budgetary politics, an SIA spokesman suggested, but the government has incentive to participate because it would automatically acquire rights to patented technology developed as a result of research. Numerous federal military and communications technologies are based on advanced semiconductor technologies, the spokesman said.

On the other hand, the federal imprimatur is essential to research university participation. Working with the research universities is an efficient way for semiconductor firms to undertake long-term research-and-development efforts, because the industry's short-terms costs are high.

SIA member companies that contribute funding would also gain rights to patented technologies, which the universities would be able to license to third parties. SIA members must be U.S.-owned firms with their own manufacturing capabilities, a provision designed partly as a barrier against foreign technology transfer by means of outsourcing.

The SIA is currently considering applications from research universities, and expects to announce the first round of participants next month.