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Intel to Ship Processors with New 3-D Transistors

Intel will begin volume production of microprocessors using three-dimensional (3-D) transistors by the end of the year. Computers equipped with the chips will be available in 2012.

In announcing its 3-D Tri-Gate transistors, Intel reported that the transistors are fundamentally different from the 2-D chips used by the electronics industry for 50 years.

With the new technology, Intel has “reinvented the transistor,” and will allow Moore’s Law to continue to advance, according to Paul Otellini, Intel president and CEO. Moore’s Law states that every two years, transistor densities will double, allowing functionality and performance to increase and cost to decline.

The 3-D transistors will enable chips to operate at lower voltage with decreased leakage. This will result in better chip performance and greater energy compared to the transistors currently used, according to Intel. The chips that use the 3D technology will be manufactured on 22 nm processor technology.

The new 3-D transistors increase chip performance up to 37 percent at lower voltage compared to the chipmaker’s planar transistors. Besides computers, the 3-D transistors are expected to be used in battery-powered handheld devices because they need less power.

The new transistors consume less than half the power at the same performance as 2-D planar transistors on 32 nm chips.

The 3-D transistors have a thin three-dimensional “fin” jutting up from the silicon substrate. The fin replaces the flat two-dimensional planar gate of a traditional transistor.

Current is controlled through a gate on each of the three sides of the fin—two on each side and one across the top—rather than just one on top. A 2-D transistor has one gate on top.

The additional control enables as much transistor current as possible to flow when the transistor is in the “on” state for performance, and as close to zero as possible when it is in the “off” state to minimize power. The added control also allows the transistor to switch very quickly between the two states.

Because the fins are vertical, transistors can be packed closer together. For future generations of chips, designers can grow the height of the fins to get even more performance and energy-efficiency gains.

Intel reported that its Core family of processors will be the first high-volume chips to use 3-D transistors. The processors are slated for high-volume productions by the end of this year.

Some industry analysts have said that 3-D transistors are a “revolutionary step” forward in semiconductor development and could soon be adopted by other chipmakers.

"Everything I've heard about this technology is that it is a real game changer in terms of manufacturing and boosting system performance capabilities,” said Brian Matas, vice president of market research at IC Insights in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But I’d like to see it in a couple of systems” and see what impact it has on the performance of a computer or other device, Matas said.

If performance is significantly improved, “it won’t be too long before other chipmakers try to emulate the design on their chips as well,” Matas added.

Matas noted that chip performance enhancements tend to be evolutionary. “But this is revolutionary change, not an evolutionary one. It might set the industry on its side.”