Intel engineers boast world's fastest transistor

Developed by researchers at Intel Labs, the transistors are just 70 to 80 atoms in width and three atoms thick, said Rob Willoner, a market analyst with Intel's technology and manufacturing group. Transistors act like tiny switches that control the flow of electrons through a chip, and Intel said its minuscule components can be turned on and off 1.5 trillion times a second, making them the world's fastest.

Intel said it will be able to cram as many as 1 billion of the transistors on a single microprocessor, boosting the speed of its chips to about 20GHz. Intel's fastest processor to date, the Pentium 4, has 42 million transistors and runs at 1.7GHz.

Intel announced its breakthrough over the weekend at a semiconductor conference in Kyoto, Japan.

The achievement is important because it suggests that semiconductor makers will be able to keep pace with Moore's Law until the end of the decade using roughly the same materials and manufacturing techniques used today, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight-64. Moore's Law states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months.

"People are always getting nervous about how much more headroom silicon technology has before we run up against some fundamental limit that could cause Moore's Law to grind to a halt," Brookwood said. "What Intel is saying is that, with some work, they think they have knocked down all the brick walls between now and the end of the decade."

The transistors were developed in small quantities -- fewer than 100 to a chip -- and under artificial laboratory conditions, Willoner said. He acknowledged that Intel has several technology hurdles to cross before it can make billion-transistor chips in high volume.

"Obviously we have to make many changes, but they're evolutionary changes rather than revolutionary," Willoner said.

Evolutionary changes

For example, today's lithography techniques used to burn circuits onto the surface of chips are nearing certain physical limits. Intel's engineers used tricks such as over-exposing the light to create their transistors, but that method won't be practical for volume production. Intel expects to use a technology called Extreme Ultra Violet (EUV) lithography to print its billion-transistor chips, and that method is still being developed by a consortium including Intel, IBM. Advanced Micro Devices and Motorola.

As the transistor count increases, so does the amount of heat produced, presenting another big challenge. At a chip conference in San Francisco earlier this year, an Intel executive warned that if engineers don't devise some creative methods to reduce heat put out by the chips, computer chips will have "thermal densities that are greater than a nuclear reactor."

Other issues to be addressed include improving the interconnects that link transistors together, and cutting down on electrical leakage between the tiny components, Willoner said. Nevertheless, Intel said it's confident the hurdles can be overcome.

"We've shown that we know how to do nanotechnology with silicon ... and that has clear advantages, because we know how to get silicon into volume production -- we're doing it today," Willoner said.

The tiny transistors will be used in high-performance chips that could help change the way people interact with computers, allowing for more natural speech recognition and even for body and facial gestures to be used to control PCs. The extra power may also endow computers with greater intelligence that allows them to predict what users want them to do next, based on their past behaviour or by interpreting body language, Willoner said.

The transistors will be made using a 0.045-micron manufacturing process technology, a number which refers to the size of features on the chips. Intel uses a 0.13 micron process today. Intel called its minuscule components "20-nanometer" transistors, with one nanometre being equivalent to one-billionth of a meter.

As well as being faster, the transistors also consumer less power, Willoner said. Today's Pentium 4 processors operate at about 1.7 volts, while chips built using the new technology will run at less than one volt.

Other semiconductor makers, including Motorola and IBM, are also working on ways to make chips faster.

IBM said last week that it has figured out a way to boost processor performance up to 35 percent by stretching the silicon it uses to make chips. This allows electrons to move faster through the transistors on a chip, boosting performance. IBM expects to begin using the technique, dubbed strained silicon, by 2003.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

James Niccolai

PC World
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?