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IDF 2012: Intel anticipates another decade of Moore's Law

Intel is readying 14nm process technology for chips due out next year and sees a path all the way to 5nm processors by the end of the decade, Intel senior fellow Mark Bohr said on Wednesday.

The chip giant is currently ramping its 22nm process with third-generation Core chips known as Ivy Bridge that were first released in late 2011. Comfortably ensconced in the high-volume stage of 22nm production, Bohr said defect density in Intel's 22nm silicon have improved considerably and yields are now matching the previous 32nm generation of products.

Bohr, speaking at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, said the so-called "3D" tri-gate transistor structure Intel introduced with Ivy Bridge would be extended to the 14nm process in 2013 and possibly remain feasible for 10nm products that would arrive in the 2015 timeframe.

The immersion lithography Intel currently uses to fabricate 22nm chips is also likely to remain in use for a couple more generations. Bohr said a next-generation technology called extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography would be preferable for the 10nm node, but it probably wouldn't be cost-effective at that point.

Beyond 10nm, Intel has pegged 7nm and 5nm transistors as the next stops on the Moore's Law-driven path to ever-smaller circuitry packed more and more densely onto computer chips every 18 months or so. The rule of thumb for the semiconductor industry, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who articulated it 47 years ago, also points to increasing cost efficiencies in silicon fabrication. For example, the transistors in Intel's 22nm chips cost about $0.01 to make but by the time the 5nm process ramps up, transistors will cost only a tenth as much.

Of course, those tiny transistors might not actually be made of silicon at that point, according to Bohr. The Intel fellow was hesitant to spill too many details about the "exotic" approaches he said Intel's most far-reaching researchers are now experimenting with to achieve process technologies beyond 10nm, but did mention that the carbon allotrope graphene was a material being considered for future transistors.

If the whats and hows of getting to 7nm and beyond aren't fully resolved, Bohr still expressed full confidence that Intel wouldn't experience any major hiccups in extended Moore's Law for at least another decade.

"Intel's technology pipeline is full, with research extending out 10 years and down to the 10nm, 7nm, and 5nm nodes. It looks like we have a a solution for 10nm and I'm confident we will have solutions for 7nm and 5nm," he said.

Meanwhile, Intel is now classifying its process technology advances for two different sorts of end products in its portfolio. On the one hand, there are the performance-maximised chips like Ivy Bridge that are aimed at powerful clients and servers, and on the other there are the low-power System-on-a-Chip designs built for mobile devices and embedded systems.

As Intel goes forward with its process "ticks," or shrinks, these two broad product categories will each be manufactured with the latest process and share some important features, like the current tri-gate technology, but differ in emphasis on performance versus leakage.

So, for example, the next generation of Atom SoCs, built for devices like smartphones and tablets, will have lower leakage logic transistors with denser upper level interconnects than next-gen Core chips, to sacrifice a bit of performance for more efficient energy use.

Bohr further said that Intel's chip designers actually have four basic choices to pick from on the company's process technology menu, to play towards different parts of what he called the "performance-leakage vector." Those options, loosely speaking, are high performance, standard performance, low power, and ultra low power. Designers can also design different regions on single chips to possess transistors with different performance-to-leakage ratios.

What does it mean for consumers? Aside from positioning itself to extend x86 dominance in PCs for some time to come, Intel has fine-tuned its ability to create chips that meet a much wider range of computational and power-draw demands whilst pushing forward in the shrinking of transistors every couple of years for even more power-performance benefits.

Everybody knows that Intel is great at making the chips that power big honking desktop PCs and servers. But next-gen chips due out next year like the 22nm Silvermont SoC and a 10-watt Haswell-class Core CPU point to a company that may just start delivering on some of those Intel smartphones and tablets we've been hearing were on their way for the past few years.