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Two chip makers innovate their way clear of a hole

Intel and IBM say the semiconductor can ride on hafnium's shoulders.

January 28, 2007|Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Hafnium Valley doesn't have the same ring to it, but it turns out Silicon Valley's biggest hope for maintaining the dizzying pace of computing advancement isn't silicon.

Two chip-making giants will use another substance, a metal called hafnium, to replace silicon in one key part of the semiconductor, each company said Saturday.

The competing breakthroughs from Intel Corp. and IBM Corp. should silence doubts, at least for several years, that the industry can prolong the decades-long trend of pushing semiconductor performance while cutting size and cost, researchers said.

Intel, the world's largest computer chip maker, promoted the successful use of hafnium and other so-called high-k materials as the industry's biggest advancement since silicon-based transistors in the 1960s. The Santa Clara, Calif., company has working versions of the chip and plans to start mass-producing versions for PCs and computer servers in the second half of the year, it said.

The innovation "will improve the capability of consumer products such as cameras, TVs, automobiles -- everything you can think of," said Yoshio Nishi, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. "Consumers will continue enjoying better products at lower costs."

For nearly half a century, the number of components on integrated circuits such as silicon computer processors has roughly doubled every couple of years, while the cost per component has declined at a commensurate rate. The phenomenon was named Moore's Law after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who first identified it more than 40 years ago.

But in recent years, many semiconductor researchers have worried that silicon-based chips could not sustain Moore's Law for much longer.

"Engineers and physicists were running into physical barriers," said Mark Bohr, a senior fellow at Intel and the company's director of process architecture and integration.

A computer chip transistor features a gate, the on-off switch that regulates the flow of power, and has a thin silicon dioxide insulator underneath. But the thinner the insulator, the more current leaks. The leaked energy generates heat and causes battery drain. High-k materials can be used as insulators that can be made thicker than silicon yet allow an electrical charge to pass through.

"If they hadn't come up with this breakthrough, there was a distant death knell," said Richard Doherty, research director at the Envisioneering Group, a consulting firm in Seaford, N.Y. "This certainly extends things into the next decade. This gives more confidence to the investment community that the chip industry is alive and well and innovating."

For Intel, another breakthrough came from trying to solve how to make the new hafnium-based gates work. The company is replacing its silicon gate with undisclosed new metal materials.

"The silicon gate technology is more than 30 years old," said Nishi. "Now it's being replaced by the metal gate. This provides a new horizon. It's somewhat of an exaggeration, but it's like going from a propeller plane to a jet engine."

Intel still plans to use silicon for many chip components. The company said the new chip materials would reduce leakage tenfold and make the transistors 20% faster. Potential uses include cellphones that perform advanced computing tasks but maintain their battery charge.

"I won't claim that Moore's Law will accelerate with this invention," Bohr said. "But it's clear that Moore's Law just won't stop."

In a separate announcement, IBM said it too had found a way to use high-k materials, which can store an electric charge better than silicon, in its transistor gates. The Armonk, N.Y., company developed the technology through a research partnership with Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Sony Corp. and Toshiba Corp. It plans to begin massproducing the chips next year.

"The new chips will have unprecedented performance, at the same time reducing the power consumed," said Bernard S. Meyerson, IBM's vice president of strategic alliances and chief technology officer of its systems and technology group. "The performance of all devices will improve dramatically."

Doherty said it was unclear how much of an advantage the developments would give Intel over its chief competitor, AMD, an IBM partner. "Whether IBM is a day behind Intel or six months, it's hard to tell," he said.

But, he added, "this is good for America to have two new sources of this new technology. Consumers are going to benefit either way."

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