New tiny circuit may lead to smaller, more powerful devices

Researchers build 15nm circuit that's only 150 atoms apart

Researchers have developed one of the smallest electronic circuits, which could pave the way for smaller and more powerful mobile devices.

Scientific teams from McGill University and Sandia National Laboratories said they've built a circuit that has two wires that are separated by the distance of 150 atoms. The circuits are built at a 15 nanometer level.

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Researchers and industry analysts say the tiny circuit could lead to computer chips that produce less heat, along with more powerful and even smaller devices.

"Smaller circuits, if they can be brought cost-effectively into production, mean smaller chips and [systems on a chip]," said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Our devices, like phones, tablets, PCs and living room devices, can either do a lot more and provide a better experience or use even less power and become even smaller than they were before."

The researchers focused on solving one of the biggest challenges in designing and building computer chips -- the amount of heat generated by integrated circuits.

Dan Olds, an analyst at The Gabriel Consulting Group, said research into circuits at this scale help us understand how to manufacture chips at smaller scales and how to handle the heat that's produced.

"This kind of research also uncovers other potential problems arising from ever smaller shrinks," he added. "Getting to 15nm or 16nm will mean smaller and more powerful devices that are more energy efficient. But when we're talking about such a small scale, designing chips that can be mass-produced with decent yields is quite a challenge. There will also be challenges for the design of devices that will use these processors."

On the positive side is the fact that these smaller circuits should offer considerably better performance than today's chips and also should use less power, Olds said.

"Devices based on 15nm processes will pack more performance and functionality into much smaller form factors," he said. "Functions that used to take two or more chips will be accomplished by one transistor-jammed processor."

Olds and Moorhead agreed that this kind of development could help extend Moore's Law, the more than 40-year-old prediction by Intel founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years.

"If you can lower the power and heat, this allows more circuits to be populated in the same space versus prior designs," Moorhead said. "This effectively extends Moore's Law ... and by shrinking die size and power within the same performance band, this could effectively enable performance levels of a tablet today to be brought into a device like a watch or even jewelry."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is Read more about processors in Computerworld's Processors Topic Center.

This story, "New tiny circuit may lead to smaller, more powerful devices" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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