SCIENCE & ENGINEERING NEWS
San Francisco, CALIF. — John Markoff reports that the semiconductor industry is edging closer to the world of nanotechnology, where components are miniaturized to the point of individual molecules and atoms.
At an industry meeting scheduled to begin here this week, a number of technical papers will explore the new ultrasmall world that is now opening beneath the scale of today’s microelectronics industry.
At this year’s International Electron Devices meeting, there will be presentations from NTT DoCoMo engineers that describe transistors that can be switched on and off based on the movement of a single electron, and Lucent Technologies researchers will present a data storage technology concept in which information is stored in an aerosol of floating crystals as small as three nanometers, or three-billionths of a meter, in diameter.
There will also be reports on continued advances down the curve of Moore’s Law, which dictates that the size of transistors – the basic component of modern microprocessor and memory chips – will continue to shrink for at least another decade or longer.
A team of researchers from the University of California will report they have fabricated the smallest chip ever – a 20-nanometer transistor gate – and the Intel Corporation, the world’s largest chip maker, plans to announce that it has scaled a transistor down to just 30 nanometers.
Intel said that its new transistor would be so small that a vertical pile of 30 million of the tiny electronic switches would measure only one-inch high.
Such a device will in the next half-decade make it possible to manufacture microprocessors containing more than 400 million transistors, running at 10 gigahertz. the company said. Currently the most powerful commercial Pentium microprocessor has 42 million transistors and runs at 1.5 gigahertz.
The continual downward scaling of transistor size is vital to Intel, which in recent years has increasingly faced the challenge of the maturing of the personal computer market. Intel executives have long been obsessed with creating new, evermore processor-hungry software applications that in turn create markets for new faster processors.
In discussing the new generation of transistors and the microprocessors they will make possible, company officials have taken pains to suggest raw computer processing power will make possible computer applications that are well beyond the range of today’s desktop machines.
For example, the company claims that a 10-gigahertz microprocessor will have sufficient power to do real-time speech recognition and language translation. They also suggest that such a processor would have the ability to do accurate visual recognition of the human face, making it possible to use such a chip in home security applications.
Computer scientists have long debated the issue of whether such feats of artificial intelligence await raw processing power alone or possibly new software algorithms or even entirely new computer designs.
This year’s meeting will also offer novel approaches to new problems. For example, one challenge that chip designers face is synchronizing the switching of arrays of transistors with a single clock frequency. This year a group of researchers at the University of Florida will suggest building a small, ultra-fast radio transmitter into a chip to broadcast the clock signal to millions of components on a chip simultaneously.