Vendors re-enact Moore’s Law
Recent announcements by Intel and IBM that promise to extend Moore’s Law into the next decade will have a significant impact on the wireless arena, according to industry observers.
At the heart of the microchip announcements is hafnium-based high-k material, which will be used as the gate dielectric in the commercial production of Intel’s 45 nm transistors later this year. The high-k material will replace silicon dioxide — the dielectric used for more than 40 years — which had reached its physical limitations, resulting in power leakage and increased heat generation, 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 90 nm to 65 nm, a smaller gate offset — a key part of the scaling, part of Moore’s Law — did not happen for the first time,” Shahidi said. “That slowed down significantly how much smaller we can make a transistor.
“[With the high-k breakthrough], we know that the 45 nm node is going to happen, we know 32 nm is going to happen and we’re very optimistic about 22 nm. When you get to 15 nm, there are more questions.”
Indeed, the problem threatened the notion of Moore’s Law, which says that the transistor counts on processing chips will double every two years. However, with the silicon dioxide dielectric, many observers noted that product manufacturers would have to choose between performance improvements and heat/power issues in the future.
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 45 nm 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.
In the computing industry, the high-k breakthrough should result in higher-performance processing without the need to significantly increase cooling and power costs — a particularly important factor in the server-farm arena. For the wireless industry, the news is just as welcome, said Roger Entner, wireless analyst for Ovum.
“I think it’s as significant for the wireless industry as it is for the desktop industry,” Entner said. “By extending Moore’s Law, we can improve the power consumption and extend the battery life of handsets.”
While theoretically possible, Shahidi noted that handset manufacturers historically decline to extend the battery life of portable devices, instead opting to increase their functionality — an evolution that has seen cell phones evolve from simple voice instruments into hand-held minicomputers that can take pictures and play music.
“We can make things smaller and faster, but people keep adding more stuff into them,” Shahidi said. “When you look at the cell phone today compared to five years ago, it can do so much more.”
However, Entner said he believes a market will develop for cell phones with longer battery life that is enabled by the chip breakthroughs.
“I think we’re going to bifurcate into two kinds of handsets — one focused on voice that provides extended battery life and one that is multifunctional,” Entner said.
More efficient processing chips should be particularly helpful in making software-defined radio (SDR) efforts economically viable, said Erik Org, marketing manager for Bitwave Semiconductor, which is expected to have beta versions of its SDR-capable Softranceiver chips available for commercial testing later this year.
“It’s significant to us. Bitwave’s blend of SDR is a mix of digital and analog circuitry,” Org said. “To the degree that new geometries are available that shrink the dye size and help us reduce the power consumption of the device, it makes it that much easier to provide the control, the processing power and meet the cost and performance targets in front of us.”
45 nm technology benefits
Compared to today’s 65 nm technology, the 45 nm technology will provide the following product benefits:
~2x improvement in transistor density, for either smaller chip size or increased transistor count
More than 20% improvement in transistor switching speed or more than 5x reduction in power leakage
More than 30% reduction in transistor switching power
Intel’s logic technology evolution
|Transistor type||90 nm||65 nm||45 nm||32 nm|