The Secret to Intel's Power-Efficient Chips: Hafnium

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hafnium1.jpgWitness the jockeying between rival chipmakers Intel (INTC) and AMD (AMD) over whose chips are more energy-efficient, and it’s clear that power-saving chips are the future of the semiconductor industry. Intel is set to show off its latest line of 45-nanometer processors — code-named Penryn — on Monday. Its chip uses a new material that allows it to have double the amount of transistors as its redecessors, but wastes only one-fifth the amount of power as the chip switches current.

What’s the new material that can deliver such a savings? A compound of the rather obscure metal, hafnium, which in other forms is also used to make nuclear control rods. The Economist calls it “the magic ingredient that computer-chip designers hope will enable them to carry on shrinking the transistors on their products in obedience to Gordon Moore’s famous law.”

In chips, hafnium can be used as an insulator to minimize “electricity leakage.” Chips have traditionally used silicon dioxide as an insulator, but as they’ve have gotten smaller, thinner silicon dioxide layers have been required, which can cause leakage of the current. Hafnium’s properties make it a better thin insulator.

Chip designers are just now introducing the hafnium chips because it’s been a huge undertaking to redesign the circuits. Researchers have been working on the switch for years.

CNN says Intel plans to roll out 15 new chips using the Penryn design by the end of 2007 and another 15 to 20 in the first quarter of 2008. Intel is expected to release pricing and model names on Monday as well.

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