Intel ready to sacrifice power for energy efficiency

Intel's Gordon Moore and Robert NoyceChipzilla is ready to embrace alternatives to the speed at all cost ethos which has made it so successful.

William Holt, who leads the company’s technology and manufacturing group, said this week that for chips to keep improving, Intel will soon have to start using fundamentally new technologies.

Holt pointed to two possible candidates – tunnelling transistors and spintronics. Both would require big changes in how chips are designed and manufactured, and would likely be used alongside silicon transistors.

What is important is that the technology will not offer speed benefits over silicon transistors and chips may stop getting faster. The new tech would improve the energy efficiency of chips, something important for many leading uses of computing today, such as cloud computing, mobile devices, and robotics.

“We’re going to see major transitions,” said Holt, speaking at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco. “The new technology will be fundamentally different.”

Holt said that the status quo can only continue for two more generations, just four or five years, by which time silicon transistors will be only seven nanometres in size.

Tunnelling transistors are far from commercialization, although DARPA and industry consortium Semiconductor Research Corporation are funding research on the devices. They take advantage of quantum mechanical properties of electrons that harm the performance of conventional transistors and that have become more problematic as transistors have got smaller.

Spintronic devices are doable and could hit the market next year. They represent digital bits by switching between two different states encoded into a quantum mechanical property of particles such as electrons known as spin.

Spintronics will appear in some low-power memory chips in the next year or so, perhaps in high-powered graphics cards.

For example, Toshiba announced last year that it had developed an experimental spintronic memory array that consumed 80 percent less power than SRAM, a type of high-speed memory.

Holt claimed that continued gains in energy efficiency, not raw computing power, are most important for the things asked of computers today.

“Particularly as we look at the Internet of things, the focus will move from speed improvements to dramatic reductions in power,” Holt said. Power is a problem across the computing spectrum. The carbon footprint of data centres operated by Google, Amazon, Facebook, and other companies is growing at an alarming rate. And the chips needed to connect many more household, commercial, and industrial objects from toasters to cars to the Internet will need to draw as little power as possible to be viable,” he said.