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HP unveils chip-boosting technology

Crossbar increases power and efficiency

HP researchers may have figured out a way to prolong Moore's Law by making chips more powerful and less power-hungry.

Yesterday HP Labs said it had created a method of using a 'crossbar switch' that more efficiently routes signals inside a common kind of chip called an FPGA (field programmable gate array). The technology could lead to the creation of chips packed with far more transistors on board, leading to faster computing times.

HP calls its technology FPNI, or field programmable nanowire interconnect. The lab hopes to make an actual prototype chip using the technology within a year, and HP believes it could produce chips that contain a 15nm (nanometer) crossbar by 2010.

HP is one of a host of companies developing ways to keep chip innovation moving along despite looming size barriers. The battle is to keep alive Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip will double roughly every 18 months. This progression has seen computing speeds rise and costs drop steadily over the 40 years since the law was coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore.

Even Moore has said his law can't go on forever – the nature of exponentials, he says, is that you push them until disaster eventually strikes. So far, the technology industry has pushed those limits to 65nm for mass-produced chips. There are about three to six atoms in a nanometer, depending on the type of atom, and there are a billion nanometers in a meter. Some scientists believe the atom may be the limit.

Intel is continually working on ways to make chips smaller and more powerful. Meanwhile, scientists from IBM last year said they had created circuit patterns as tiny as 29.9nm using a technique called DUV (deep-ultraviolet) optical lithography.

TSMC has worked on the problem, using a 'fish fin' design to ratchet down the size of working transistors to a minute 25nm. It named the transistors Omega FinFETs.

FPGA chips are often used in networking devices such as those made by Cisco because they can be reprogrammed using software instead of needing to be replaced. It's an important consideration in routers, which are often in tough-to-reach places.

The most common type of chip is called an ASIC, or application specific integrated circuit. As the name implies, it is made to perform one task, such as allow a mobile phone to receive call signals. ASICs cannot be reprogrammed.

The research, by Greg Snider and Stan Williams of HP Labs, appears in the 24 January issue of Nanotechnology magazine. Their paper, entitled Nano/CMOS Architectures Using Field-Programmable Nanowire Interconnect, is available here for free in PDF format for 30 days from publication.

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