At this morning's analyst conference, AMD executives said they may scale back some on R&D. But earlier in the week, partner IBM unveiled a plan that could help fill the gap: a way to rework existing 45 nm parts designs for 32 nm.
Early this year, America's two leading semiconductor design firms, in fierce competition with one another to discover a material that could make smaller transistors possible, announced their accomplishments within mere hours of one another: Intel first, followed right behind by IBM.
However, observers at the time noted Intel had already performed very thorough testing on its high-k-plus-metal-gate (HK+MG) process, having already produced a working logic chip at the 45 nm level. IBM could only claim it had found the hafnium material, but beyond some scientific discourses could say little more that was actually practical.
Feeling a little like Al Gore -- beaten by a nose but perhaps not really beaten -- IBM has been working to find some way to leap-frog over Intel's achievement. On Monday, it made some inroads toward that goal, announcing it was forging an alliance with a multitude of semiconductor partners including Samsung, Chartered Semiconductor, STMicroelectronics, Freescale Semiconductor (the holders of Motorola's former CPU-related IP), Infineon (which is still part-owner of US-based Qimonda), and AMD.
Together, that alliance will work to produce HK+MG semiconductors for both logic and memory -- especially for the SRAM needed for CPUs' L1 and L2 caches -- this time at the 32 nm level. It is at this level of lithography that traditional semiconductor materials literally bend under pressure; any smaller, and they will crack. These new chips' die sizes could end up 50% smaller than for similar HK+MG designs at the 45 nm level.
Dr. Gary Patton, vice president for silicon research and development at IBM, explained the meaning of this breakthrough: In the lithographic process, you create semiconductors one layer at a time, as though you were reversing a film of a chip being shaven into layers. Because conventional gate oxide materials leak at lower and lower lithography nodes -- and leakage generates heat -- the HK+MG process replaces that material with something using hafnium, the exact formula of which remaining a secret.