October 25, 2004 6:21 AM PDT

Intel sketches out nanotechnology road map

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--For Intel, moving away from silicon is a matter of when, not if.

Chip manufacturers will continue to follow the evolutionary path described by Moore's Law for several more years, but engineers will have to substantially change the underlying design and ingredients of their products, said several Intel researchers Friday at a presentation at the company's headquarters here.

"By 2010, we should have a pretty good idea of what (is) the device that will take us beyond CMOS."
--Paolo Gargini, director of
technology strategy, Intel

Experimental results with nanotube and nanowire transistors show that these elements could provide three times the performance of conventional transistors at the same power level. Like other companies, such as NEC, Intel is experimenting with ways of growing the nanotubes directly onto a silicon wafer.

This process requires a 900 degree Celsius environment, microscopic balls of iron, and a gaseous bath of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Now, many of the experimental nanotube transistors are made by creating a nanotube in a separate chamber and surgically inserting it into a silicon wafer.

Intel is also tinkering with ways of making chips out of wafers with layers of gallium arsenide and other so-called "III-V" compounds. Some communications chipmakers use these materials now, but "it is really hard to build these things on a large scale," David said. Ideally, Intel would like to figure out a way of retaining silicon as the basic wafer material and graft in layers of III-V materials.

Then, sometime around 2020, developing tricks to shrink CMOS or CMOS-flavored transistors will come to an end. Transistors will consist of only a few atoms, making it impossible to shrink them further.

Among some of the more promising ideas are spintronics, the science of creating ones and zeros by controlling the spin of electrons. Another possibility is the use of "phase change" devices, in which data is recorded by changing the physical state of a medium. Compact-disc-like material that can be melted, or crystallized, in microseconds is an example of a phase change substance. Optical technology may also get integrated into chips.

Intel is seeding university labs to conduct experiments on these projects. Projects are ongoing at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Yale University.

Although developing these new chips and materials won't be easy, with the advent of nanotechnology, governments around the world have dramatically increased their investment in chip technology. In 1997, government-funded research worldwide for nanotechnology in came to around $500 million. In 2003, it rose to $3.5 billion.

"For 20 years, there had been no investment in the basic sciences," Gargini said. "It was like Santa Claus was coming to town."


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