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Breaking Moore's Law: How chipmakers are pushing PCs to blistering new levels

Brad Chacos | April 12, 2013
Processor performance increases may have flatlined over the past few years, but the biggest brains in the biz are working on cutting-edge tech to push PCs to blistering new speeds.

OPEL: So long, silicon, hello, gallium arsenide!

But is that future based on silicon technology, as today's computing is?

Definitely, for the short term. Definitely not, in the long term. Sometime in the future--experts don't know exactly when--silicon will reach its limits and simply won't be able to be pushed any further. Chip makers will have to switch to another material.

That day is a long way off, but researchers are already exploring alternatives. Graphene processors receive a lot of hype as a potential silicon successor, but OPEL Technologies thinks the future lies in gallium arsenide.

OPEL has been fine-tuning the gallium arsenide technology at the heart of its POET (Planar Opto Electronic Technology) platform for more than 20 years, and the company has worked with BAE and the U.S. Department of Defense (among others) to validate it. While past processor forays into gallium arsenide have ended in mild disappointment, OPEL representatives say their proprietary technology is ready for the big time.

OPEL only recently exited the R&D stage and hasn't tried to make itty-bitty transistors at Ivy Bridge's 20nm size, but the company claims that at 800nm, gallium arsenide processors are faster than today's silicon and use roughly half as much voltage.

"If you wanted to match the speed of today's silicon processors, at roughly a 3GHz clock rate, you wouldn't have to go all the way down to 20 or 30 nanometers," says OPEL chief scientist Dr. Geoffrey Taylor. "Heck, you could probably hit that at 200nm." And that's using planar technology, not 3D transistors.

One of the biggest problems any silicon alternative faces is that silicon is the most cutting-edge technology in the world, with billions invested in manufacturing silicon processors to maximum efficiency. It's going to be hard to convince Intel, AMD, ARM, and the HSA Foundation to drop all that for a new material. OPEL says its technology has a large overlap with current silicon fabrication methods.

"It's scalable, and it's bolt-on to CMOS," says executive director Peter Copetti. "That's very important. In our discussions with different foundries and semiconductor companies, the first thing they ask is 'Do I have to retool my facilities?' The investment here is minimal because our system is complementary to what's out there right now." OPEL also says its wafers are reusable.

The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors has identified gallium arsenide as a potential silicon replacement sometime between 2018 and 2026. There is still a ton of testing and transitioning to be done before gallium arsenide captures any  of the mainstream PC processor market, but if even a fraction of OPEL's claims hold true, its technology could very well power the processors of the future.


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