It has been a long time since we’ve had a major breakthrough in the semi-conductor industry. For years, innovation was a race that was focused in one direction: Being the first to develop a chip that was tinier, yet equally or more powerful than the last. But now, Intel forged some new ground and is taking semiconductors in a new direction.
The Intel 22 nanometer 3D Tri-Gate transistors form is the first to add conducting channels in a vertical fashion while shrinking the surface area (their current generation of processors, Sandy Bridge, are 32 nm). The result is a silicon “vertical fin structure” on the chip that provides more processing power than what would be possible in a 2D chip. It’s almost like a city building skyscrapers to accommodate a growing population because there is no room left on the ground.
In addition to being more powerful, the 22 nanometer 3D Tri-Gate is more energy efficient than its predecessors. “This gain means that the transistors are ideal for use in small handheld devices, which operate using less energy to ‘switch’ back and forth. Alternatively, the new transistors consume less than half the power when at the same performance as 2D planar transistors on 32nm chips,” say Intel.
And this isn’t just a prototype or wishful thinking.
Intel has announced that this new generation of “3D” processor technology, which they’ve dubbed Ivy Bridge, will begin production by the end of 2011 for commercial channels. Mass production for consumer channels will happen in 2012.
“What we’ve seen for decades now have been evolutionary changes to the technology. This is definitely a revolutionary change,” said analyst and CEO of VLSI Research Dan Hutcheson.
But what exactly does this mean for consumers?
“[The chips] in everything from smartphones to the new TVs, with PCs in between, so potentially it’s a lot,” tech analyst Rob Enderle told Tim Millaney. “But then, the Wankel engine could have obsoleted the four-cylinder or the V-8 (but automakers shunned the early rotary engine because it wasn’t fuel-efficient, he said). This is Intel, so it will at least go in PCs. They will get more power-efficient. For those of us worried about the proliferation of unsafe power plants, or consumption of fossil fuels, that’s a factor. But in everything else, from smartphones to TVs, they’ll have to displace what’s there, and they haven’t done that yet.”
It will be interesting to see how chip technology evolves from this point. An article by the UK’s Daily Mail Online mentions that this isn’t “a complete third dimension” for chips. The vertical fin structure is not constructed in a way that another layer of conductors could be added on the top. This is likely the next breakthrough the semiconductor industry will be working toward.