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Monday, 11 December, 2000, 17:47 GMT
The chips go marching on
P4 die Intel
A magnified image of the surface of a silicon chip
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

The relentless upward march of computer processing power looks set to continue for at least the next decade with the prospect of computer chips 10 times more powerful than those of today.

Chip giant Intel has dismissed speculation that computer chips are running out of steam by unveiling research that will help it produce working components made of elements only a few atoms wide.

If realised, the technology promises to put enormous amounts of computer power at people's fingertips - though Intel said the technology would take a while to get into everyday computers.

And to reap the full benefits of the breakthrough, Intel said it had yet to overcome several other technological hurdles.

Moore the man

Over 35 years ago, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore observed that every new chip bears about twice as many transistors - which roughly equates to processing power - as its predecessor.

Gordon Moore Intel
Gordon Moore: Everyone's favourite chip chap
His prediction that this trend would continue, and drive the exponential rise of computer power, has held true over nine generations of chips.

The relative power of processors has doubled roughly every 18-24 months, and the number of transistors on board a chip has grown from 2,300 on the Intel 4004 in 1971 to more than 42 million on the Pentium 4.

One way that chip producers make their processors more powerful is by using ever smaller components. But the laws of physics suggest "Moore's Law", as it has become known, will hit a brick wall when the components become so tiny that strange quantum effects - usual properties seen only at the level of atoms - kick in.

Smaller is smarter

Mr Moore himself expected his vision to hold only until the components got to be around 0.25 microns (millionths of a metre) across. However, current chips have already surpassed this threshold and use components a mere 0.18 microns in size.

And now Intel claims to have found a way to make the components smaller still and maintain the predictable properties essential for working processors. The chip giant said it could make components just 0.07 microns across. Some of the elements of these transistors are only three atoms wide.

Intel said that a processor made with components this small would have 400 million transistors on board and would be 10 times as powerful as the best chips available today. However, Intel said it would be 10 years before it was producing such advanced chips in large numbers.

Intel has managed to make the tiny components by using ever finer wavelengths of light to etch the semiconductors that make up a computer chip. The process Intel researchers have unveiled uses extreme ultraviolet light to carve components - far finer than the visible light that many chip makers have used before now.

Heat problems

However, making smaller components is only the first step. Intel has yet to overcome the formidable problems that arise in trying to organise 400 million components etched on a silicon wafer.

Although individually the components are small, together they span a considerable distance and Intel will have to find a way to co-ordinate the elements with one timing signal as is common today. If one processing unit on a chip is kept waiting for results from another, any gains in processing power will be lost.

The heat generated by all the components is likely to be considerable and Intel will have to find a way to dissipate that heat and keep the chip within its operating temperature.

Intel scientists revealed details of their latest research work at the annual IEEE International Electron Device meeting, which is being held in San Francisco, US, this week.

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