Intel details its next-generation Intel 4 chip manufacturing process

Intel details its next-generation Intel 4 chip manufacturing process

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Intel Corp. has shared new details about its next-generation Intel 4 chip manufacturing process, which will enable the company to produce faster and more power-efficient processors.

Intel detailed the technology on Sunday at the 2022 IEEE VLSI Symposium, a major chip industry event. The company also previewed the first processors that it will produce using Intel 4.

Increased performance

Chips made with the Intel 4 process will reportedly be capable of providing up to 21.5% higher clock speeds than the company’s current silicon while using the same amount of electricity. Alternatively, some of the increased speed can be traded off for better power efficiency. Intel estimates that an Intel 4 chip could provide the same clock speed as one of its current-generation processors while using 40% less power.

The transistors that comprise a chip perform multiple tasks. Some transistors are organized into logic cells, circuits configured to carry out computing operations on data. Others are organized into SRAM cells, which function as a chip’s onboard memory and store the data being processed. 

Intel 4 provides double the logic cell density of Intel’s previous-generation chip manufacturing process, which makes it possible to incorporate more computing circuits into a processor. The result is an increase in performance. SRAM cell density, in turn, has also been improved by more than 20%.

New production approach

The increased speed provided by Intel 4 are partly the result of the fact that the process is the first from Intel to use extreme ultraviolet lithography, or EUV, technology. The technology uses beams of light to carve transistor patterns into silicon wafers.

EUV machines cost about $200 million apiece and work by heating a tiny piece of tin to create plasma, which in turn generates light. This process is repeated tens of thousands of times per second. With the light beams that an EUV machine generates, chipmakers can etch more sophisticated transistor patterns into wafers than earlier technology allows and do so with greater reliability.

According to Intel, using EUV technology in the Intel 4 process has helped it not only increase chip performance but also reduce manufacturing errors. Additionally, the company stated that Intel 4 reduces the number of steps involved in certain parts of the manufacturing process. The result is a more efficient production workflow. 

Intel has changed some of the materials from which its processors are made to optimize chip efficiency. The company until now used cobalt to build interconnects, the wires responsible for connecting different parts of a chip. In the Intel 4 process, interconnects are made from a material dubbed Enhanced Copper that combines cobalt with copper and promises to provide better performance.

Intel in conjunction updated the design of the transistors powering its chips. Thanks to certain features of its new interconnect technology, the company reportedly managed to remove some components from its transistor design without decreasing performance. 

Because there are fewer components to accommodate, more transistors can be placed on a chip, which increases performance. This design update is one of the factors behind the speed improvements that the Intel 4 process provides.

Meteor Lake 

Alongside its new semiconductor manufacturing technologies, Intel previewed the first chips that it plans to make using the Intel 4 process. The chips are known internally as the Meteor Lake series. 

According to Intel, a Meteor Lake processor includes six central processing unit cores optimized for performance and eight cores optimized for power efficiency. There’s also an integrated graphics processing unit, as well as an artificial intelligence module. The first Meteor Lake processors are expected to become available in 2023. 

Further down the line, Intel plans to upgrade the Intel 4 process to an even more advanced manufacturing technology dubbed Intel 3. The technology is set to introduce enhanced transistor designs and will make more extensive use of EUV technology. It’s estimated that Intel 3 will provide up to 18% better performance than Intel 4. 

Image: Intel

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