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Tuesday, 12 June, 2001, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Fast chips with bigger bits
Computer chip close-up IBM
A close up of a computer chip
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

IBM and Intel have found new ways to make computer chips run even faster.

This week, both companies have unveiled research that promises to lead to faster computers in the near future.

IBM has boosted chip speed using stretched components, and Intel has found a way to make transistors smaller than ever before.

The breakthroughs could mean that chip makers can rely on existing manufacturing methods for longer than previously thought.

Stretch and strain

Typically, chip makers try to improve performance by making components smaller, but IBM has bucked this trend with its "strained silicon" approach.

As its name implies the "strained silicon" approach stretches the material used in key components. Silicon chips are made of layers of different materials that form their components - the atoms in the different layers have a natural tendency to line up with each other.

IBM has found that if it uses a base layer with atoms slightly further apart than usual, the silicon laid on top of it is deformed or "strained" as its atoms seek to sit on top of their counterparts.

Electrons slip through strained silicon up to 70% faster because they experience less resistance. The result could be chips up to a third quicker. IBM claims the strained silicon process is not expensive or difficult to work into production lines, and said it could be used commercially as soon as 2003.

Tiny transistors

Problems to solve before that date include ensuring that the strained layer and the silicon above meet uniformly so there are no dislocations between atoms.

IBM made its announcement about strained silicon at the VLSI Technology Symposium held in Kyoto Japan in early June. At the same conference, Intel unveiled research that it claims will lead to processors ten times faster than those we use today.

Intel has found a way to make transistors, the key component on a computer chip, smaller than ever. The Intel researchers say they have managed to make working transistors 70-80 atoms wide and just three atoms thick.

Eventually, Intel claims it will be able to fit one billion of these transistors on to a chip, producing a processor that works at a speed of 20Ghz. By contrast, Intel's latest Pentium 4 chips work at a relatively modest 1.7Ghz.

Moore's Law

The technology should mean that the ultimate limit for the size of components on computer chips will not be reached until early in the second decade of this century.

Intel expects to be making chips with the tiny transistors onboard by 2007.

Moore's Law states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months as manufacturers find ways to make components ever smaller. But it has long been known that this shrinking process cannot go on forever.

Eventually, components will get so small that they stop working in a predictable manner as they become susceptible to quantum effects. At that point, chip makers will have to find other ways to make more powerful processors.

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See also:

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