Intel Corporation and IBM have announced one of the biggest advances in transistors in four decades, overcoming a frustrating obstacle by ensuring microchips can get even smaller and more powerful.
The breakthrough, achieved via separate research effort, involves using an exotic new material to make transistors – the tiny switches that are the building blocks of microchips.
The technology involves a layer of material that regulates the flow of electricity through transistors. "At the transistor level, we haven't changed the basic materials since the 1960s. So it's a real big breakthrough," said Dan Hutcheson, head of VLSI Research, an industry consultancy.
"Moore's Law was coming to a grinding halt," he added, referring to the industry maxim laid down by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years.
The result of Moore's Law has been smaller and faster chips and their spread into a wide array of consumer products that now account for the bulk of the industry's $250 billion in annual sales.
The latest breakthrough means Intel, IBM and others can proceed with technology roadmaps that call for the next generation of chips to be made with circuitry as small as 45 nanometers, about 1/2000th the width of a human hair.
Intel said that it will use the technology — based on a silvery metal called hafnium — in new processors coming out later this year that the company hopes will give it a leg up on chips from rival Advanced Micro Devices Incorporated.
The benefits of the new technique can be tapped in a number of ways. Transistors can be made smaller, potentially doubling the total number in a given area, their speed can be increased by more than 20 per cent, or power leakage can be cut by 80 per cent or more.