HP advances fight to keep Moore's Law healthy

HP researchers are trying to make chips more powerful and less power-hungry

Hewlett-Packard researchers may have figured out a way to prolong Moore's Law by making chips more powerful and less power-hungry.

HP Labs on Tuesday said it created a method of using a "crossbar switch" that more efficiently routes signals inside a common kind of chip called an FPGA (field programmable gate array). The technology could lead to the creation of chips packed with far more transistors on board, leading to faster computing times.

HP calls its new technology "field programmable nanowire interconnect (FPNI)." The lab hopes to make an actual prototype chip using the technology within a year, and HP believes it could produce chips that contain a 15-nanometer crossbar by 2010.

HP is one of a host of companies developing ways to keep chip innovation moving along despite looming size barriers. The battle is to keep alive Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip will double about every 18 months. Moore's Law has been the driving force behind increasing computing speeds and the decreasing cost of electronics gear over the 40 years since it was coined by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore.

Even Moore has said his law can't go on forever because the nature of exponentials is that you push them until disaster eventually strikes. So far, the technology industry has pushed those limits to 65-nanometers for mass-produced chips. There are about 3 to 6 atoms in a nanometer, depending on the type of atom, and there are a billion nanometers in a meter. Some scientists believe the atom may be the limit.

Intel is always working on new ways to make chips smaller and more powerful. In addition, scientists from IBM last year said they created circuit patterns as tiny as 29.9 nanometers using a technique called deep-ultraviolet (DUV) optical lithography.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC) has also worked on the problem, using a fish fin design to ratchet down the size of working transistors to a minute 25-nanometers. It named the transistors Omega FinFETs.

FPGA chips are often used in networking devices such as those made by Cisco Systems because they can be reprogrammed using software instead of needing to be replaced. It's an important consideration in routers, which are often in tough to reach places.

The most common type of chip is called an ASIC, or application specific integrated circuit. As the name implies, it is made to perform one task, such as allow a mobile phone to receive call signals. ASICs cannot be reprogrammed.

The research, by Greg Snider and Stan Williams of HP Labs, is in the Jan. 24 issue of Nanotechnology magazine. Their paper, titled "Nano/CMOS Architectures Using Field-Programmable Nanowire Interconnect," is available here for free in PDF format for 30 days from publication

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