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Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, has overhauled the basic building block of the information age, paving the way for a new generation of faster and more energy-efficient processors.

 Mark Bohr, an Intel physicist who led the research, holds a 45-nanometer wafer using new metal alloys that led the insulation advance.

Related Intel 45-Nanometer Transistor Technology (intel.com)

Company researchers said the advance represented the most significant change in the materials used to manufacture silicon chips since Intel pioneered the modern integrated-circuit transistor more than four decades ago.

The microprocessor chips, which Intel plans to begin making in the second half of this year, are designed for computers but they could also have applications in consumer devices. Their combination of processing power and energy efficiency could make it possible, for example, for cellphones to play video at length — a demanding digital task — with less battery drain.

The work by Intel overcomes a potentially crippling technical obstacle that has arisen as a transistor’s tiny switches are made ever smaller: their tendency to leak current as the insulating material gets thinner. The Intel advance uses new metallic alloys in the insulation itself and in adjacent components.

Word of the announcement, which is planned for Monday, touched off a war of dueling statements as I.B.M. rushed to announce that it was on the verge of a similar advance.

I.B.M. executives said their company was planning to introduce a comparable type of transistor in the first quarter of 2008.

Many industry analysts say that Intel retains a six-month to nine-month lead over the rest of the industry, but I.B.M. executives disputed the claim and said the two companies were focused on different markets in the computing industry.

The I.B.M. technology has been developed in partnership with Advanced Micro Devices, Intel’s main rival. Modern microprocessor and memory chips are created from an interconnected fabric of hundreds of millions and even billions of the tiny switches that process the ones and zeros that are the foundation of digital computing.

They are made using a manufacturing process that has been constantly improving for more than four decades. Today transistors, for example, are made with systems that can create wires and other features that are finer than the resolving power of a single wavelength of light.

The Intel announcement is new evidence that the chip maker is maintaining the pace of Moore’s Law, the technology axiom that states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years, giving rise to a constant escalation of computing power at lower costs.

“This is evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, but it will generate a big sigh of relief,” said Vivek Subramanian, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

Read the rest of the story at The New York Times (Free Registration Required)


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