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.

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