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Intel debuts '3D transistors' with 22nm chip recipe

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Intel has unveiled its 22nm manufacturing process.

The process marks the debut of Intel's "Tri-Gate" transistors, first revealed as a research project over eight years ago, and the company has demonstrated its first microprocessor built with the new process, a chip codenamed "Ivy Bridge".

Equipped with a three-sided gate – the portion of a transistor used to control current – the Tri-Gate provides 50 per cent less power consumption than existing planar transistors as well as "unprecedented" performance gains, according to Intel. Chipzilla boasts that this is "the world's first 3D transistor".

"This transition to 3D devices will help us extend Moore's Law," Bill Holt, Intel senior vice president and general manager of Intel's technology and manufacturing groups, said Wednesday morning at a press conference in San Francisco.

Prior to the press conference, Intel said it would make its "most significant technology announcement of the year", and it was widely expected that this would involve the switch to 22nm. In recent days, rumors have indicated with the new process set to roll out, Intel is hoping to land a new breed of lower power processors on Apple's iPhone and iPad.

A transistor consists of three basic components: a source, a gate, and a drain. When a voltage is applied to the gate, electrons flow from the source to the drain, turning the transistor "on". When a different voltage applied, current between source and drain stopped, turning the transistor "off".

You can imagine the source and drain as two ends of a square pipe through which electrons flow. Existing transistors are "planar". The gate, which controls the flow of electrons, sits atop the pipe, touching it on only one surface. The Tri-Gate is nonplanar. The gate wraps around the pipe, touching not only the top plane of the pipe but the two sides as well. Unlike with planar transistors, electrons can flow across three planes, moving significantly more current through the transistor than would be the case with a planar transistor of the same size.

This allows the Tri-Gate to operate at a low voltage, with lower current leakage. Intel can maximize current when the transistor is on, and minimize current when it's off. The company says that the 22nm Tri-Gate provides up to a 37 per cent performance increase at a low voltage compared to its 32nm planar transistor, as Intel Fellow Mark Bohr explained at the press conference. The transistor also consumes less than half the power as a 32nm planar transistor at the same performance level, the company said.

The new transistor is "ideal" for use in small handheld devices. Naturally, Apple was not mentioned. But the company did say it intends to use the new process with its mobile-centric Atom chips. The cost of building the chips with the new transistors, Bohr said, is two to three per cent higher per wafer.

Today, Dadi Perlmutter, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's architecture group, demonstrated the new "Ivy Bridge" chip, part of the company's Core family of microprocessors. It will be used in PCs, notebooks, and servers, and Perlmutter indicated that chips will arrive in volume early next year. The company did not give a timeframe for Atom's switch to 22nm. ®

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