In separate announcements, technology giants Intel and IBM announced a transistor-gate breakthrough that promises to maintain the Moore’s Law paradigm affecting all processing technologies for several years.

Hafnium-based high-k material will be used in the gate dielectric for transistors in future chips beginning next year, replacing silicon dioxide—the material used for more than 40 years in chip manufacturing. However, silicon dioxide was approaching its physical limitations as chips became smaller, resulting in wasted energy and the unnecessary release of heat from the chips.

The limitations were most apparent in the latest generation—or node—of 65nm transistors, said Ghavam Shahidi, director of silicon technology at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

“Basically, as we went from 90nm to 65nm, a smaller gate offset—a key part of the scaling, part of Moore’s Law—did not happen for the first time,” Shahidi said in an interview with MRT. “That slowed down significantly how much smaller we can make a transistor.”

Indeed, many industry observers noted the fact that gating limitations were forcing manufacturers to choose between power and performance, threatening the viability of Moore’s Law, which states that transistor counts on processing chips will double every two years. With the high-k breakthrough, manufacturers can shrink gates for future generations of processors, Shahidi said.

“We know that the 45nm node is going to happen, we know 32nm is going to happen and we’re very optimistic about 22nm,” he said. “When you get to 15nm, there are more questions.”

By using the high-k gate dielectric, electric-current leakage will be 10 times less than with silicon dioxide, according to Intel. Combined with new metal gating materials that have not been announced yet, Intel’s 45nm process technology will provide a 20% increase in transistor performance while reducing source-drain leakage by more than five times, the company said in a press release.

"The implementation of high-k and metal materials marks the biggest change in transistor technology since the introduction of polysilicon gate MOS transistors in the late 1960s," Intel co-founder Gordon Moore—namesake of Moore’s Law—said in a statement.

While more power efficient and smaller, future generations of chips may not necessarily lead to smaller devices with longer battery life, Shahidi said.

“If you keep the same functions and go to the next node, the heat would go down,” he said. “But what’s happening is that people are putting more and more functions on the chips. So, even though the same function consumes less power, there are more functions, meaning the power consumption tends to stay the same, if not increase.

“We can make things smaller and faster, but people keep adding more stuff into them. When you look at the cell phone today compared to five years ago, it can do so much more.”

Without the high-k breakthrough, manufacturers might have had to add cooling functions to their devices to accommodate the additional heat transistors would emit if Moore’s Law-level performance gains were realized, Shahidi said.