Six fold reduction in semiconductor power loss, a faster, lower heat process technology

Posted by Rick C. Hodgin

Clemson (SC) - Researchers at Clemson University's Center for Silicon Nanoelectronics have developed a new process technology which reduces power loss by six times, "to a level never seen before," according to the press release.  This new technology results in reduced heat, and will allow future multi-core chips to have less physical cores because each one can be clocked higher and do more work.  Future handheld devices could also benefit by requiring less power to do the same work seen today.

A process technology is the physical manufacturing processes involved in making a semiconductor device.  This typically involves creating things in the sizes we're familiar with, using 65nm, 45nm, etc.  Tiny copper lines are created which connect all of the on-die circuits necessary for carrying out work.  Transistors are the fundamental workhorses of the semiconductor.  It is typically these devices where the bulk of the heat is generated.  Each transistor generates an incredibly small amount of heat, but in today's semiconductor devices there are literally 100s of millions of transistors.  Their cumulative heat effects become significant.

Heat generation is also affected by clock speed.  If a modern 3.0 GHz processor dissipating 65 watts of heat at 3.0 GHz were taken and underclocked to 500 MHz, it might be able to operate without any active cooling at all.  The slower clock speed results in less heat being generated.  And, if that same 3.0 GHz processor were taken and overclocked to 4.0 GHz, it might require a high-end liquid or some type of higher-end active cooling system that can cool the chip down to minus 40C or so (due to the temperature differential inside the chip).

The Clemson scientists are claiming to have developed a new process technology which will allow for much less heat to be generated at a reduced manufacturing cost.  According to their press release, their patented method "has the potential to improve the performance and lower the cost of next-generation computer chips and a number of semiconductor devices, which include green devices such as solar cells."

No real details on the process technology, materials used, manufacturing methods, or anything further was given in the release.  It appears to be a notification about what they have, not how they got there.

Researchers at Clemson include Aarthi Venkateshan, Kelvin F. Poole, James Harriss, Herman Senter, Robert Teague of Clemson and J. Narayan (of North Carolina State University at Raleigh).  These results were initially published in Electronics Letters on October 11, 2007.  See Volume 43, Issue 21, and specifically pages 1130, 1131.  The patent mentioned here is covered by an existing broad-base patent issued to Singh and Poole of Clemson University back in 2003.

Author's opinion
It will be interesting to see if this one truly pans out.  Over the years, many scientists and researchers have come forward making huge proclamations about some new technology or discovery which will fundamentally change the way semiconductor devices are manufactured.  To my knowledge, unless they were silently incorporated into existing designs, microprocessors haven't suddenly moved forward significantly from something like a 90nm copper process to a 2nm gold process.

A decrease of 6x the power loss would result in a significant reduction in generated heat.  CPUs which are limited by their thermal envelopes today would not be so with such process technology at their hearts.  Speeds of 4.0 GHz, even 5.0 GHz, with the same thermals we see today, could be possible.