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Intel Transistors Enter the Third Dimension

The chip maker's next-generation microprocessors will use multigate transistors to tackle the energy leakage problems that come with tiny features

2 min read
Intel Transistors Enter the Third Dimension

From what I remember of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, getting zapped by Wayne Szalinski’s shrink ray was not a cause for celebration. But Intel senior fellow Mark Bohr, who submits to a virtual miniaturization process that leaves him 100nm tall, seems positively gleeful in this new video from the company.

Bohr is celebrating Intel’s new, smaller, and, for the first time, three-dimensional transistor. Dubbed Tri-Gate, the device employs a much-anticipated design innovation – multiple gates that wrap around a raised silicon channel.

The transistors will appear in Intel's new "Ivy Bridge" microprocessor, which will be made using a 22nm manufacturing process and begin shipping later this year. Intel's processor is the first make the jump from 32nm to 22nm, continuing the decades-long race to keep boosting the number of transistors that can be packed into the same amount of space.

The switch to 3D addresses some fundamental problems that have been plaguing transistors as their feature size has shrunk. Transistors have long been two-dimensional affairs, with a source and a drain separated by a channel along which electrons flow. The only components that sit above the plane are the gate, which turns on and off the flow of electrons, and a thin, insulating layer sandwiched between the gate and the channel.

But as engineers have made transistors smaller and smaller, the distance from the source to the drain has gotten so short that electrons can leak through the lower part of the channel, where the gate's influence is weakest, wasting power. To solve the leakage problem, transistor designers have been eyeing three-dimensional designs in which electrons have no place to go that isn’t controlled by the gate.

Intel’s solution is a FinFET design that employs a ridge-like silicon channel that juts out of the silicon substrate. The transistor’s gate runs perpendicular to the channel and drapes over it, creating three gates around the channel.

Intel reports its new 3D, 22nm transistors are 37 percent faster at low voltage compared to Intel's current 32nm planar transistors, making them better for smartphones and other handheld devices. They draw less than half the power as the firm’s 32nm chips.

Despite that, the New York Times says, some think Intel is making a gamble, because alternative approaches may offer better gains on the power front:

There has been industry speculation that FinFET technology will give Intel a clear speed advantage, but possibly less control over power consumption than alternative approaches...The scope of Intel’s gamble is underscored by the fact that while the company dominates in the markets for data center computers, desktops and laptops, it has largely been locked out of the tablet and smartphone markets which are growing far more quickly than the traditional PC industry.

Intel made a tentative step into the low power market last month, with the introduction of its first processor for tablet computers.

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Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

5 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.


If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

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