Intel doubles the capacity of a transistor Breakthrough portends more powerful chips

Technology

September 17, 1997|By SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Overcoming a fundamental barrier in the design of integrated circuits, Intel Corp. said today that it has figured out how to double the amount of information that can be put on a transistor.

The giant chipmaker said it will use the breakthrough to create more powerful memory chips for products such as cellular phones, networking equipment and even video arcade games. For instance, a digital answering machine could have twice as much room for messages.

Intel said that right now the new technology is good only for flash memory -- chips that retain information even after the products they reside in are turned off. It can't be used for regular computer memory, or for microprocessors such as Pentiums, which are far more complex.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel is the leading maker of flash memory, claiming about 33 percent of the market, according to Dataquest. It posted revenues of $950 million from flash memory last year (out of a total of $20.1 billion).

The new StrataFlash memory chip, which was announced at a morning press conference in Tokyo, represents the fruit of three years of labor on the part of Intel. It broached the idea for the technology early in 1995, but it took all of the company's vaunted manufacturing prowess to produce the new chips. "Manufacturing execution is the secret, because all this stuff requires very precise manufacturing," said Intel spokesman Tom Waldrop.

For years, the amount of information on a transistor has been limited to one "bit" of data. Each bit is represented by an electrical charge, or by lack of a charge -- that is, a bit can be "on" or "off."

Using what it calls multilevel cell technology, Intel now can cram four states of electrical charge on each transistor, varying from no charge to full charge. The four states translate into two "ons" and two "offs," giving the transistor two bits instead of one.

To make the new chips work, Intel had to solve three problems: It had to be able to apply the different levels of electricity to the transistor with absolute precision.

LTC Once applied, the electrical charges had to remain stable for up to 10 years -- a benchmark for flash memory.

Technology had to be developed to let devices accurately "read" the information off the new-fangled transistors.

Analysts said Intel's new system holds promise for both the consumer and business markets if it proves to be as good as advertised.

"If they can really push two bits into the size of one, it's certainly going to be a big boost to cell phones and other things that use that technology," said Linley Gwennap, editor of Microprocessor Report.

Intel plans to begin volume shipments of StrataFlash chips in the first quarter of 1998. The chips will be made initially at the company's assembly plant outside Albuquerque, N.M.

Another company, Sandisk Corp., began shipping flash memory earlier this year with technology similar to Intel's. But its souped-up chips require separate microprocessors to prevent errors in data recognition -- making Intel the first to do the job with a single chip.

However, Sandisk officials claimed that their flash memory is at least the equal of Intel's.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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