5 tech breakthroughs: Chip-level advances that may change computing

Laser-connected chips, flexible printed circuits, memristors and more are on the horizon.

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Changeable chips: Programmable layers

From the fastest processor to the smallest memory module, just about every chip used in electronics today has one thing in common: Its active elements reside in the top 1% to 2% of the silicon material it's made of.

That will change over the next few years as chip makers go vertical to squeeze in more and more components. Some vendors, such as Intel, have resorted to gluing completed chips together, while University of Rochester researchers have designed and built 3-D circuits layer by layer internally. Both approaches are enormously complicated and expensive, observes IBM's Guha.

But what if you could trick the circuit into rearranging itself on demand so that it only appeared to other components to have several layers of active elements? That's the idea behind Tabula's Spacetime technology and its ABAX chip design.

ABAX chip
An artist's conception of the reprogrammable layers in the ABAX chip.

Rather than having several layers of hardwired components that are permanently etched into silicon and never change, ABAX uses reprogrammable circuits that can change their abilities on demand. Its current products deliver the equivalent of up to eight different chip layers that can be changed faster than the blink of an eye.

"Think of it as like a department store with eight floors," says Steve Tieg, Tabula's president and chief technology officer. "You'd take an elevator to go between floors to shop for different items." But rather than having eight different physical floors, each with its own internal arrangement and assortment of goods, Tabula has figured out a way to have a single layer (or floor) that reconfigures itself as needed.

"It's as if while you're on the elevator, they're inside rearranging the floor to create a different layout with different products," adds Tieg. "It looks to the outside world as if there are eight floors, but there's only one."

To work, the chip's reprogrammable circuits are fed with its next series of assignments and duties in just 80 picoseconds -- 1,000 times faster than the chip's computational cycle. That way, the layers can be changed on the fly while the chip is waiting for its next commands.

In a real sense, ABAX does more with less. Made with conventional semiconductor processing technology, Tabula's ABAX chips cost roughly the same to manufacture as traditional ones. The design still uses only the top surface of the chip, but that single layer does the work of eight different chips. According to Tieg, the technology can increase the density of circuits twofold, and memory and video throughput can be boosted by as much as 3.5 times.

This idea could potentially usher in a new era in semiconductors where a single chip replaces several or adds abilities without the cost and power use of extra parts. "Virtualizing the operations of a chip can have a big payoff in terms of efficiency and flexibility," says NIST's Seiler. "The key is how it gets programmed."

Steve Tieg, Tabula
Tabula's Steve Tieg: "There's no limit to the number of levels we can integrate."

So far, instead of a direct assault on the big guns of the semiconductor business, such as processors, graphics and memory, Tabula has concentrated on the market for special-purpose chips. These circuits are the workhorses of our time, making things like wireless routers and cell-phone tower equipment possible.

Next, Tabula plans to target the chips found in everyday mainstream electronics, such as digital cameras, video games and maybe even full computers. The company's current eight-level design is in production, and Tabula is well on the way to creating a 12-layer version, with a 20-level chip on the drawing board. "There's no limit to the number of levels we can integrate," Tieg says.

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