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Intel debuts 3-D transistors; cars, phones, spacecraft get smarter

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Intel's new three-dimensional Tri-Gate transistors sustain Moore's Law and promise smarter cars, hospitals, wind turbines, spacecraft, phones and oh yeah -- computers.

The electronics in your world -- from your car to your smartphone to your appliances and even wind turbines -- just took another leap forward.

Intel on Wednesday announced the debut of its Tri-Gate transistors, the world's first in three dimensions and the next step in sustaining Moore's Law.

The new transistors -- which will first appear in 22-nanometer microprocessors codenamed "Ivy Bridge" -- will allow higher performing gadgets with less power consumption.

Transistors, of course, are the building block of electronics. They're in the processor in your laptop, they're in the control systems in your space shuttle, they're in medical devices and household appliances and virtually anything that has some degree of intelligence to it.

The problem with sustaining the pace of Moore's Law -- in which transistor density doubles every two years -- is that device dimensions have become so small that Moore's Law was running up against the laws of physics itself. Intel claims the transistor's new three-dimensional structure removes this hurdle.

It also allows for higher performance and increased energy efficiency compared to conventional transistors. That means more electronics in more places taking up less space -- important if we plan to digitize the real world, taking computing out of the computer and putting it into highways, bus stops and other everyday objects that could use a dose of smarts.

The new transistor, as described by Intel:

The 3-D Tri-Gate transistors are a reinvention of the transistor. The traditional "flat" two-dimensional planar gate is replaced with an incredibly thin three-dimensional silicon fin that rises up vertically from the silicon substrate. Control of current is accomplished by implementing a gate on each of the three sides of the fin – two on each side and one across the top -- rather than just one on top, as is the case with the 2-D planar transistor. The additional control enables as much transistor current flowing as possible when the transistor is in the "on" state (for performance), and as close to zero as possible when it is in the "off" state (to minimize power), and enables the transistor to switch very quickly between the two states (again, for performance).

Intel says its structure allows engineers to manage density, not unlike a skyscraper in a crowded city, which allows more use of less space by looking up.

"Amazing, world-shaping devices will be created from this capability as we advance Moore's Law into new realms," Intel CEO Paul Otellini said in a statement.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure