Intel's New Transistor Technology

by Kristen Sackley

Intel announced two major breakthroughs in computer processor technology on Jan. 27, with multiple University [of Illinois] alumni to thank for their contributions to the project.

Mark Bohr, a senior fellow at Intel and University alumnus, led the team of process engineers that created the new 45 nanometer transistor processor. Bohr said the new transistors will reduce leakage, meaning battery leakage, related to the length of battery life.

"(The transistors) provide for performance but in a much more energy efficient manner," Bohr said.

These 45 nanometer chips are the first to have the gate insulator and the gate electrode made without silicon, which had been used for the past 40 years.

Intel developed a new material with a "high-k" property for the gate insulator, and a combination of metals for the gate electrode. But the make-up of "high-k" and the precise combination of metals are being kept secret by Intel so they can have a leg up on the competition. Most of the details regarding the project have been kept secret until now.

From the changes made to the gate insulator, gate electrode and the elimination of silicon, Bohr said Intel's announcement was key in progressing transistor technology.

"Those three components remained unchanged in the past 40 years." Bohr said. "So our announcement in January was a big change where we converted the gate insulator from silicon to hafnium."

Not only is Intel's new transistor technology energy efficient, but it is also extremely small and solves the problem of Moore's Law, at least temporarily.

Gordon Moore, inventor of Moore's law and co-founder of Intel, said that the number of transistors should double on a processor every 18-24 months, eventually leading to a limit. This limit was approaching, Bohr said, but this new technology may have delayed the end of Moore's law.

"Over the last five, six years experts have admitted that we are running into fundamental limits." Bohr said. "We have made transistors as small as possible. If we make them smaller they won't have good performance."

According to Intel, with the new technology approximately 400 of Intel's 45 nanometer transistors could fit on the surface of a single human red blood cell.

Michael Hattendorf, University alumnus and process engineer who has worked on the new Intel chip, said that it was a great feeling when Intel made the announcement because he had been working on the project for so long.

Hattendorf said that the University got him interested in computer engineering, and he worked a lot with transistor technology as an undergraduate.

While at the University, Hattendorf said, "I had some opportunities to do some hands on work, making devices and doing measurements, learning about the way these kinds of devices work."