Researchers find state of matter that could extend Moore's Law

McGill scientists say quasi-3-D electron crystal could be key to shrinking transistors

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have discovered a new state of matter that they say could greatly extend Moore's Law.

Engineers at companies such as Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. have long been cramming more and more transistors -- the building blocks of the processor -- onto a chip. Last fall, for instance, Intel announced that each of its new Penryn chips holds 820 million transistors. The Penryn chip keeps alive the 40-year-old prediction by Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years.

Some observers have long predicted that leakage and energy consumption will be significant roadblocks to the law at some point.

The McGill scientists, though, think they may have a way around those roadblocks.

The researchers say they've found a quasi-three-dimensional electron crystal that could enable them to harness quantum physics to make increasingly small computer chips. The crystal was discovered using a device cooled to a temperature that is 100 times colder than intergalactic space.

Guillaume Gervais, director of McGill's Ultra-Low Temperature Condensed Matter Experiment Lab, said that the material is not quite three-dimensional, but it's something in between two dimensions and three dimensions.

"In a standard transistor, you have a gate, and the electron flow is controlled by it like a faucet would control a gas flow," Gervais said in a statement. "You can understand the particles as independent units, which lets us treat them as ones and zeroes or on and off switches in digital computing. However, once you get down to the nanoscale, quantum forces kick in, and the electrons may condense into a collective state and lose their individual nature. Then all sorts of bizarre phenomena pop up. In some cases, the electrons may even split. Concepts of 'on' and 'off' lose all meaning under these conditions."

Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., said the McGill scientists are working on far-reaching science, and even if their theories hold true, it would be quite some time before they could be used in the chip manufacturing process.

"There also isn't any evidence to say that this is the answer to continuing Moore's Law," Olds said. "It's a possible answer, it's a potential answer, but only after we understand how these new materials work, which we don't yet."

"From a higher perspective, this is the kind of experimental activity that is taking place all over the world. It's great, because we see these breakthroughs that others will build on. Many will fall by the wayside -- blind alleys that don't go anywhere interesting -- but a few will be found to be extremely useful over time. It's the law of the jungle in technology," Olds added. "There are many experiments. Some are interesting but useless. A very few are interesting and very useful. It's too soon to tell which camp this one will fall into."

In its work to shrink transistors and extend Moore's Law, IBM announced last February that they had hit a major milestone in nanotechnology, figuring out how to measure the amount of force needed to move an atom. That new measurement capability could enable researchers to shrink the size of transistors used in computer chips.

Shrinking transistors cuts power requirements and boosts speed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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