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Businessweek Archives

A Sneak Peek At The Next Millennium's Chips

Developments to Watch

A Sneak Peek at the Next Millennium's Chips

The International Electron Device Meeting is a premiere showcase for glimpsing the future of chips and computers. This year's IEDM kicked off in Washington on Dec. 6 and featured a raft of striking revelations. While past meetings focused on coming refinements, this IEDM outlined a radically different chip industry that will emerge around 2015, after many silicon technologies have hit their physical limits.

Engineers have been doubling the power of semiconductors every 18 months by shrinking the width of transistors and circuit lines to cram more devices onto chips. When this tactic gives out, chipmakers should have new options for sustaining geometric boosts in performance. For example, researchers at Lucent Technologies' Bell Laboratories have turned existing technology on end: They unveiled a vertical replacement for today's horizontal transistors that is just 50 nanometers wide--half the projected limit of present technology. And a team from Hitachi and the University of California at Berkeley reported on another vertical design that's even smaller. Meantime, Motorola has made ultratiny transistors with a new insulating material called perovskite. It may enable transistors to shrink beyond what's now believed possible.

IBM is also going vertical, building microprocessors on top of memory circuits. That hikes computer performance because data can be moved to and from memory much faster. By ganging these chips together, IBM plans to hatch a blindingly fast computer by 2005--capable of chewing up a quadrillion instructions per second. That kind of speed wasn't expected until 2015.Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

A Smart Shoe Box for Digiphotos

With the advent of digital services for storing photos, like "You've got pictures" from America Online and Eastman Kodak, many cybernauts may one day be trading in shoeboxes full of photos for digital-picture archives. Some consumers will place their collections on the Web; others will want CD-ROMs. But either way, your archive is likely to grow by leaps and bounds, and hunting through all those pictures for a specific photo could turn into a real chore.

That's where AT&T's software Shoebox comes in. The company's British research arm, AT&T Laboratories Cambridge, has developed an archiving program with a sweeping range of search options. The most powerful tool is aimed at users of digital cameras that can also record audio snippets. For each shot, you speak an identifying phrase, such as "Jimmy's eighth birthday." After that, it's simple to retrieve that specific shot: Just say or type some of those words.

But Shoebox is more than an audio tagging system. When you turn up a picture you like, just click on some portion--a face or a sandy beach--and the software will call up others with similar features or colors. The searches aren't perfect, admits the lab's managing director, Andy Hopper. But the system is very fast, even when sifting through thousands of images. So if your first try should flop, trying again will be pretty painless.By Neil Gross; Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

Putting a Plasmatron in Your Tank

A device the size of a wine bottle could turn gasoline into high-grade, hydrogen-rich gas that would burn much cleaner than the fuel in today's car tanks, according to Daniel R. Cohn, a senior scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Plasma Science & Fusion Center. Cohn and his colleagues recently installed and tested the device, called a plasmatron, on a commercial car engine. They concluded that if the plasmatron were used in a car with a catalytic converter, it could cut nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by an additional 90%.

Plasmatrons are devices in which a flow of gas is subjected to an electrical discharge, such as an arc, turning the fuel and surrounding air into a plasma. Large plasmatrons have been used by industry for years to produce hydrogen-rich gas from mixtures of hydrocarbon fuels and air. Cohn's team managed to scrunch all this into a unit that fits under the hood and can convert a range of fuels into hydrogen rich gas, which allows the car engine to run leaner, thus reducing NOx emissions.

Plasmatron fuel converters could be phased in gradually, starting with today's engines. They could also provide a long-range bridge to more exotic hydrogen vehicles. And they could be used on another species of clean cars--those with fuel cells that chemically produce electricity.By Neil Gross; Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

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