Intel readies 22nm leap, with trigates

May 4, 2011 – Intel has taken the wraps off its next chip technology, a 22nm process utilizing a new 3D trigate architecture that promises faster speeds or big power savings, which will ramp to volume manufacturing later this year.

Not bashful about the Moore’s Law-extending achievement, Intel president/CEO Paul Otellini predicted "amazing, world-shaping devices will be created" based on the 22nm trigate. More specifically, Intel Senior Fellow Mark Bohr pointed to performance and power improvements "like nothing we’ve seen before […] far exceed[ing] what we typically see from one process generation to the next. It will give product designers the flexibility to make current devices smarter and wholly new ones possible."

Intel and other chipmakers have been tinkering for years with post-planar CMOS technology. A couple years ago both IBM and Intel discussed their own visions of trigate architectures surrounding the channel. Whereas traditional 2D planar transistors form a conducting channel in the silicon under the gate electrode when on, the trigate vertical structure replaces the flat 2D stream with 3D fins, conducting and controlling channels on three sides to provide "fully depleted" operation. (Note that Intel doesn’t use SOI, another viable yet expensive pathway to achieving full-depletion.) Multiple fins can be connected together to increase total drive strength.

Compared with 32nm planar chips, Intel’s new 22nm trigate ones deliver >50% power reduction @ constant performance, or a 37% performance increase at low voltage. (An Incredibly Shrinking Bohr explains in basic terms in this video.)

Other facts about Intel’s 22nm trigate circuits:

  •   364Mbit array size
  •   >2.9B transistors
  •   3rd-generation HKMG
  •   The same transistor/interconnect features as on 22nm CPUs
  •   Only 2%-3% add to process costs (vs. 10% for FDSOI)


The first 22nm processors incorporating the trigate structure process (P1270), code-named "Ivy Bridge," have been demo’d working in several systems (laptop, server and desktop computer). Intel is targeting a target production ramp in 2H11 (maintaining its 2-year cadence for new tech generations). A 14nm version (P1272) is slated for 2013, and 10nm (P1274) in 2015.

Beside the clear theme that Intel continues its tick-tock technology path with yet another process technology leap ahead of the field, the new 22nm trigate structure could offer a future road for Intel to open up more business as a foundry, if it chose to (it’s already reportedly working with two fabless partners). Intel’s process toolkit is without peer (low-power, low-leakage, fully depleted transistors), so for companies designing for consumer portable devices, Intel could have a leg up. "We believe foundries are working on similar technology but remain 18-24 months behind Intel’s ability to bring the technology to market (expect attempts at 14nm)," writes Gleacher & Company analyst Doug Freedman.

And beyond foundries, this could be a shot across the bow of ARM as well. Intel’s recent quarter showed that while it may not be inside every non-PC device, it certainly benefits from all the backend heavy-lifting and connectivity those devices require. Yet, "the fact that x86 products will have first access to 3D transistor gate technology will likely help offset to the architecture handicap of x86 vs. ARM in optimizing low-power," Gleacher notes.

Glen Yeung of Citigroup agrees, saying the multigate move "will vault Intel squarely into the battle for mobile devices." Thermal design points for handset/tablet processors could drop to 0.5W-1W — "all else being equal, clearly competitive with ARM," with double the notebook battery life.


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