Intel's new 45nm Penryn processor allows the chipmaker to take on some major challenges facing the semiconductor industry on its road to ever smaller chips, but it is just a small step in the overall redesign required for super-small chips.
Intel has found a new way to cut transistor leakage by swapping out some of the materials that its uses to construct the devices.
The main benefit of this approach lies in the fact that the use of these so-called High-K and metal gate transistors allows the chipmaker to maintain its current transistor design and keep using current production techniques.
Current generation technologies using silicon dioxide had reached their limits and could not be deployed in smaller chips without dramatically increasing leakage.
Especially the High-K technique allows Intel to keep using existing manufacturing and design techniques for several generations of semiconductors.
"This is significant, just like a lot of things happening at the 45nm scale. It's one of the steps required to drastically change the way we manufacture semiconductors," said Jim McGregor, a director with analyst firm In-Stat who covers chip designs.
Semiconductor researchers have discussed both techniques for years now, but so far nobody has been able to demonstrate any working chips.
Intel unveiled early production units of its High-K and metal gate chips on Friday and is preparing to start shipping them in volume later this year.
An ideal transistor is able to completely block the electric current travelling through its components. But in practice current slips by components that are designed to block these flows.
This process is known as leakage. It shortens battery life in notebook computers and causes enterprise servers to produce more heat. As chip components continue to shrink in size, leakage has become an increasing issue.
Chip developers such as AMD and IBM are relying on more expensive production techniques such as Silicon on Insulator and are planning to switch to so-called immersion lithography for their 45nm chips.
But Intel's ability to stick to its current production process ensures a low cost and efficient transition.
Independent industry analyst Rob Enderle typified the announcement as "an advance that allows you to extend a process that would otherwise be obsolete".
"It allows Intel to bring something to market that otherwise probably would not have shown up until next year," Endrerle told vnunet.com.
- Intel unveils first 45nm processors
- Video: Intel demonstrates world's first working 45nm chips
- Video: A look inside Intel's Penryn 45nm processor
- Blog: Intel's revolutionary 45nm evolution
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