September 15, 2011

Chip-level breakthroughs that may change computing over the next 5 years

Computer World - The next five years will be a very exciting time for electronics," says David Seiler, chief of the semiconductor electronics division at the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

1. Germanium Laser Onchip Photonics

Jurgen Michel, a researcher at MIT's Microphotonics Center in Cambridge, Mass., wants to replace all onchip wires with flashing germanium (Ge) lasers that transmit data via infrared light. A Germanium laser can transmit bits and bytes 100 times faster than electricity moving through wires can, which means the critical connections between the chip's processing cores and its memory, for example, won't hold the rest of the device back. The chip will have a series tunnels and caverns undert the surface to transmit the pulses of light; tiny mirrors and sensors relay and interpret the data.

These circuits communicate using a germanium laser. Photo: Dominick Reuter/MIT.

By 2015, it's likely that there will be computer chips with up to 64 independent processing cores, each working simultaneously. "Connecting them with wires is a dead end," Michel says. "Using a germanium laser to connect them has huge potential and a big payoff."

2. Memristors

The memristor is basically a resistor with memory. A commercial version will be called ReRAM, for resistive random access memory, these chips can store roughly twice the data as flash chips but are more than 1,000 times faster than flash memory and could last for millions of rewrite cycles, compared with the 100,000 that flash memory is certified for. The bonus is that ReRAM's read and write speeds are comparable, while flash takes a lot longer to write data than to read it.

HP and South Korea's Hynix have teamed up to mass-produce ReRAM chips that could be used in a variety of small devices, such as media players that can hold terabytes of songs, videos and e-books. They expect to see the first products on the market sometime in 2013.

It's possible to stack memristor arrays on top of each other within a single chip. There's no fundamental limit to the number of layers we can produce," adds Stanley Williams. "We can get to petabit chips within about 10 years."

In 20 years or so, the technology could rewrite basic computer design since memristors can also be logic devices and can mimic synapses.

3. 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. 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 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.

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. The technology can increase the density of circuits twofold, and memory and video throughput can be boosted by as much as 3.5 times.

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.

4. Graphene

"If it pans out, graphene could yield a terahertz processor," he predicts -- roughly 20 times faster than today's best silicon chip.

The first commercial graphene devices in about 2013 will have specialty uses where cost doesn't matter as much as top speed and low power use.

5. Printed circuits: Chips on the cheap

PARC's design prints circuits directly on the base material in a process that's often only slightly more involved than printing a mailing label. It requires some special materials, like silver ink, but these devices can be printed on flexible polyethylene sheets rather than on brittle silicon.

By adapting a variety of printing techniques, including ink-jetting, stamping and silk screening, PARC has made amplifiers, batteries and switches for a fraction of what it costs to manufacture them the traditional way. The company recently succeeded in making a 20-bit memory and controller circuit this way, and will start selling it next year. It's a drop in the digital bucket compared with megabit flash and DRAM chips, but it's a start.

Printed circuits will likely never catch up to silicon in terms of speed or the ability to put billions of transistors on something the size of a fingernail. But there are lots of places where cost counts for more than speed. As early as 2012, printed devices should start showing up in toys and games that incorporate rudimentary computing, like synthetic voices, as well as in car seat sensors for controlling the deployment of air bags in an accident.

Further out -- around 2015, Ernst estimates -- printed circuits could end up in some very interesting places, such as flexible e-book readers that can be rolled up when not in use or clothing made of a solar-cell fabric that can charge a music player or cell phone. Market analysis firm IDTechEx forecasts that sales of these flexible printed circuits will grow from $1 billion in 2010 to $45 billion in 2016 and show up in a variety of devices.

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