CEBIT - Intel claims a small milestone in chip making

Intel Corp. has produced prototypes of high-density memory chips using an advanced manufacturing process, and will use the technology in faster microprocessors scheduled for introduction in the second half of next year, the company announced Tuesday at the CeBIT trade show in Hanover, Germany.

The SRAM chips have a capacity of 52M bits, which Intel claimed is an industry record, and pack 330 million transistors onto the surface of each chip, said Mark Bohr, a fellow with Intel's technology and manufacturing group. That compares to about 42 million transistors on today's Pentium 4 processor.

The memory chips won't be sold as standalone products but are significant to end users for two reasons, Bohr said. Firstly, SRAMs provide a standard way for testing out a new manufacturing process, and the prototypes show that Intel is on track to introduce its new, 0.09-micron manufacturing process next year, which it will use to make faster microprocessors, Bohr said.

"These demonstrate all of the (0.09 micron) process features required for microprocessors, including transistors and interconnects," he said. "This silicon is real and fully functional."

The micron figure refers to the size of the circuits etched onto the surface of the chips. One micron is equal to one one-thousandth of a millimeter, and today's fastest Pentium 4 chips are made using a 0.13-micron process. Like other chip makers, Intel moves to a new manufacturing process about every two years, which allows it to boost the speed of its chips without increasing costs.

The SRAM chips are also noteworthy because they can act as "portable circuit blocks" that will be integrated with future processors to boost the size of their on-chip memory cache, Bohr said. The memory cache is kind of data reservoir that sits adjacent to the main processor, and a larger on-chip cache generally means better performance.

The first processor built using the 0.09-micron process will be a Pentium 4 code named Prescott that is due out in the second half of 2003, Bohr said. He wouldn't say how many transistors are expected to be on the chip, but at its developer conference here recently Intel demonstrated a Pentium 4 running at 4 GHz which it said it planned to introduce next year. Today's fastest Pentium 4 tops out at 2.2 GHz.

In the prototype chips announced Tuesday, each SRAM cell -- a group of six memory transistors -- measures only one square micron, which is also an industry record and compares to 20 square microns in 1994, Bohr said. The chips were manufactured at Intel's development fab in Hillsboro, Oregon, on 300-millimeter silicon wafers. Each SRAM chip measured about 1 centimeter square, he said.

Santa Clara, California, based Intel isn't the only chip maker moving forward with a 0.09-micron process. Last month, Royal Philips Electronics NV, STMicroelectronics NV and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Ltd. said they too had produced test chips using a 0.09-micron process and expected to offer prototypes in the second half of this year.

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