Intel Trades Over 50 Years of Chip Design for ’3D’ Processors

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From Avatar‘s tawny-eyed, blue-skinned aliens to high-def Blu-ray movies to Nintendo’s totable 3DS, everyone’s hip to 3D, and the latest company to hop onboard looks to be–wait a second, Intel?

Yep, Intel, as in Intel 3D microprocessors. No, you won’t need dorky glasses to run your next computer, but using sophisticated 3D assembly tricks, Intel just announced it’s found a pretty cool new way to reduce size and power requirements in upcoming batches of CPUs.

They’re calling it “Tri-Gate Transistor Technology,” and it runs on microscopically small 22 nanometer silicon (a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter). That’s in fact 10 nanometers smaller than the company’s current 32 nm “Sandy Bridge” family. You’re looking at a picture of it up top. No, that’s not me zooming on a piece of Frosted Mini-Wheats.

Microprocessors, you’ve probably heard, are composed of millions or even billions of tiny electrical components called transistors. Over time, transistor counts must increase to deliver incremental computing power. According to “Moore’s Law,” the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years, thus the need to build smaller, denser chips (so we’re not running computers the size of houses).

Trouble is, you’re up against the limits of space, and as we’ve taken transistors down to the size of blood cells, the problem’s vexed processor manufacturer’s–Moore’s Law appears headed toward a ceiling.

The (temporary) solution? Switch to 3D. As in 3D transistors. Since 1959, transistors have followed what’s called a “planar” or flat 2D process. With the new technology, Intel’s switched to a process whereby a small “fin” of silicon is raised above the surface of the chip–the “3-D” effect, if you will. Check out this slightly humorous Intel video for a four-minute breakdown:

Intel claims the upsides of doing this include: improved switching (on/off) states, a 37% performance increase at low voltages (compared with existing 32nm planar transistors), half the power consumption of “2-D” transistors on 32nm chips, and–more a marketing point than a technical one–the ability to “continue Moore’s Law.”

In other words, faster, smaller, cooler chips, and you can probably imagine what that entails in terms of performance and battery life perks for upcoming mobile devices.

When will we see the first Tri-Gate processors? They’re already in the offing, and Intel expects to roll them into general production, codenamed “Ivy Bridge,” later this year.