By Cliff Edwards In recent years, semiconductor companies have hit a wall when it comes to increasing chip speeds and keeping the heat down. For decades, chipmakers managed to cram more circuits onto a chip, doubling the performance every 18 months. But as the circuitry shrank, it became harder to prevent massive amounts of electricity leakage from overheating computer systems.
Now, Intel (INTC) says it has an answer. On Nov. 5, the chipmaker reported at a Tokyo conference that it has found a new type of electricity-conducting material that radically reduces the excess-heat problem. Intel now predicts it will be able to continue boosting chip performance for at least 10 more years.
What's the new material? Intel isn't saying for competitive reasons, but it believes it can start turning out the chips in volume by 2007.
MANY APPROACHES. The news is a dramatic twist in the race among top chipmakers to solve one of the industry's biggest problems. Rivals such as Motorola (MOT), Texas Instruments (TXN), IBM (IBM), and others have realized that the current insulating material, silicon dioxide, is too thin and causes current leakage as circuits get smaller. Many believe the answer is in switching to a type of metal, although each outfit is following its own R&D path.
Intel also has been experimenting with changing the layout of its chip to shuttle electricity through the circuitry more effectively. So-called trigate transistor chips, which have two sides and a top, are another technology high on Intel's research list.
With the Santa Clara (Calif.) chipmaker planning to spend about $4 billion annually over the next few years to advance research into chip dynamics, the results could have massive implications on everything from PCs to consumer electronics. Chips manufactured with any of these new technologies promise to be a 100 times faster than those on the market today, opening up the door for mass production of tiny devices featuring voice recognition, artificial intelligence, and other hot new technologies. That's good news for whoever gets there first -- and Intel may be in the lead. Edwards covers Intel from BusinessWeek's San Mateo bureau