How Intel could exceed Moore's Law with '3-D' chip

Intel's new 22-nanometer, tri-gate transistor can greatly boost performance while reducing power consumption.

The wheel is a nice piece of technology. It’s been around for quite a while, and is used nearly everywhere. And it pretty much has stayed the same since its invention – you know, round and all.

The microprocessor is a different story. This basic building block of computer technology has only been around for about 50 years. In that time, however, its designers have followed Moore's Law like clockwork, regularly doubling the amount of transistors they could cram into a processor. The 4-bit chips gave way to 8 bits and on up to 64 bits, and then the multicore designs came along.

But now, Intel may be able to get ahead of Moore’s schedule with a new transistor design, some nine years in the making. They are calling it a 3-D transistor, but let’s be clear here: Very small, older transistors also existed in all three physical dimensions. A more accurate term would be a tri-gate transistor.

Here’s the basic idea. A transistor has power flowing through it from the source end to the drain end. The presence or absence of a current is determined by the voltage level of the gate that bridges the two. The major problem with the traditional setup involves signal loss resulting from the fact that the gate only contacts the source and drain on one surface.

A tri-gate, or 3-D if you really insist, transistor has three gates that make contact on three sides at once, effectively tripling the amount of surface through which electrons can travel. This produces less data leakage and uses less power than the older design.

Intel asserts that this equates to a third more processing speed, and about half as much power consumption. And at 22 nanometers, they are able to make them smaller than ever before. This means they could pack in twice as many transistors in about the same-sized chip for the same power usage, which operate a third faster – effectively giving us 2 2/3 as much processing ability for the same power consumption. Take that, Mr. Moore! (Although we suppose that since Moore’s Law is named after Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, breaking the law is OK in this case.)

In the GCN Lab, we can hardly wait to see what effect this new processor design will have on computer performance, battery life and, of course, cost to consumers and government. We’ve already been in talks with major computer manufacturers who have put us in the front of the queue to check out a new workstation featuring these tri-gate monsters.

Sadly, the new chips aren't slated to come out in systems until early next year. And although we will do our best to get ahold of a prototype as soon as possible, I guess we’ll have to wait a little while longer.

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