Intel aims to boost processor speeds with new glass substrate technology

Intel aims to boost processor speeds with new glass substrate technology

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Intel Corp. will build glass into its most advanced processors to make them faster and more power-efficient.

The chipmaker detailed the plan today ahead of its annual Intel Innovation event, which is dedicated to new semiconductor technologies. At the center of the development effort is a component known as a glass substrate. The component, which took more than 10 years and $1 billion to develop, is expected to start shipping with Intel chips in the second half of this decade.

“After a decade of research, Intel has achieved industry-leading glass substrates for advanced packaging,” said Intel Senior Vice President Babak Sabi. “We look forward to delivering these cutting-edge technologies that will benefit our key players and foundry customers for decades to come.”

A new approach to chip packaging

A server’s processor doesn’t sit directly on the motherboard. Rather, it’s placed on a kind of stand known as the substrate. It’s a flat, rectangular component that shields the fragile processor from heat, pressure and other potential sources of transistor damage.

The substrate also has a second, equally important role. Modern server processors are made of multiple chip modules called chiplets that regularly exchange data with one another to coordinate their work. The substrate is the channel through which those chiplets exchange data.

Intel says that its glass substrate technology outperforms existing alternatives in several areas. Most notably, it could allow data to move significantly faster between a processor’s chiplets, which should increase application performance.

Data travels between chiplets via tiny wires embedded into the substrate. According to Intel, those wires can be placed 10 times closer to one another inside a glass substrate than is possible today. This means 10 times as many wires can be installed, which allows data to travel between chiplets that much faster. In the long term, Intel believes, the technology could facilitate even more significant speed improvements.

The substrate wires that connect a processor’s chiplets with one another processor are made of copper. The data that travels over those wires, in turn, is transmitted as electricity. Several companies are currently developing optical interconnects that transmit data in the form of light rather than electricity, which is expected to speed up information transfer speeds by a factor of up to 100.

Intel says that optical interconnects should be easier to integrate into its glass substrate than into competing technologies. As a result, it should become more practical to build chiplets that communicate using light.

Larger chips

Speeding up the rate at which a processor’s chiplets can exchange data with one another is not the only way to increase performance. That goal can also be achieved by adding more chiplets. According to Intel, its glass substrate technology will ease this task as well. 

A processor’s chiplets sit on its substrate, which effectively functions as a kind of base layer. The larger the substrate, the more chiplets can be placed on it. Intel expects that its new glass technology will make it possible to create “ultra-large form-factor packages” with more room for chiplets than current chips. 

The technology offers other benefits as well. According to Intel, it can increase processors’ power-efficiently and simplify certain aspects of the semiconductor manufacturing process.

Intel has spent more than $1 billion to build a glass substrate production line in Chandler, Arizona. It has already produced several proof-of-concept chips equipped with the technology. When Intel starts rolling out glass substrates commercially in the latter half of this decade, it will ship them with high-end chips such as data center processors.

The technology is part of a broader effort by the company to build larger, more capable processors. Intel’s goal is to build chips with 1 trillion transistors by 2030. The most advanced processor the company has developed to date, the Ponte Vecchio artificial intelligence accelerator, includes about 100 billion transistors. 

Photo: Intel

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