RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – While the silicon in semiconductors may not disappear entirely, staff and members of the Semiconductor Research Corporation can take pride in the fact they helped get some of it out, thus making for better chips.

Few people outside the semiconductor industry are aware of the fact that the industry-funded consortium known as SRC played a pivotal role in developments that led to the recent announcements by IBM and Intel disclosing a major advance in chip technology.

By incorporating an exotic metal known as hafnium, Intel and IBM will soon produce chips that can be smaller, manufactured more cheaply, pack more punch and produce less heat. The companies expect improvements in chips for devices ranging from consumer products to computers.

In other words, their decision to embrace hafnium in the manufacturing process will keep Moore’s Law about chips (smaller, cheaper, more transistors and processing power) relevant for at least a few more years. Moore’s Law is the prediction made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors placed on a chip could double every two years. And the SRC, which is a consortium of universities and private companies (including IBM and Intel) helped lead the way with researchers at member institutions such as North Carolina State making the leap to hafnium possible.

Hafnium, a bright, silvery metallic in color, absorbs neutrons better than any other metal and is used in control rods for nuclear power plants. Its melting point is 2,220 degrees Celsius, according to the American heritage Science Dictionary. Hafnium is often used as well in filaments.

According to the SRC, chip manufacturers can use hafnium to:

• Shrink transistors, perhaps doubling the number that could be packed on a chip

• Increase processing power by more than 20 percent

• Reduce power leakage by up to 80 percent, thus reducing heat

• Reduce power consumption by half

Hafnium will be used in chips to help regulate energy flow rather than silicon since research supported by the SRC demonstrated the metal can do a better job.

“Their technology began with their investments at SRC,” said Steve Hillenius, vice president at SRC. “In the next six to 12 months, IBM and Intel plan to capitalize on this technology. Advance Micro Devices and others also have access to this information.” AMD, Intel’s fierce rival, is working with IBM on the hafnium project.

In its announcement, IBM did not disclose the name of the “new material,” but called the advance a “high-k metal gate.” The material will be used as a transistor’s “on/off” switch and will provide “superior electrical Properties.” The change will enhance “the transistor’s function while also allowing the size of the transistor to be shrunk beyond limits being reached today.” IBM said it would begin using the new material in 2008.

Hillenius, a 25-year veteran of the semiconductor industry who was director of integrated circuit device development at Agere Systems before recently joining SRC, stressed that manufacturers can now move on to smaller chip sizes. For years, the physical limitations of silicon have led designers and manufacturers to believe that at some point chips could not be made any smaller or more efficient or packed with more power.

“This is a pretty giant leap forward,” Hellinus explained about the hafnium decision. “This is related to the fundamental research that goes on at universities in materials, thickness and device structures. This was funded through the SRC and other organizations.”

T.C. Chen, vice president of science and technology for IBM research, agreed.

"Until now, the chip industry was facing a major roadblock in terms of how far we could push current technology," he said in the chip announcement. “After more than ten years of effort, we now have a way forward. With chip technology so pervasive in our everyday lives, this work will benefit people in many ways.”

By participating in the SRC, IBM and Intel can utilize technology the consortium develops.

The hafnium decision was not something either Intel or IBM made quickly, Hillenius added.

“It takes between 15 and 20 years for identification as something as important as this to go into production,” he explained. “Wafer processing plants cost upwards to several billion dollars each. It’s a big commitment to go ahead.”

Since the chips can be made smaller with hafnium, thousands more can be packed onto the 12-inch wafers in the production process, Hillenius added. That fact helps reduce manufacturing costs.

IBM said the hafnium change would not require it to make changes in its manufacturing process at a chip production facility in New York.

The SRC-backed hafnium effort started in the 1990s and lasted through 2001 when Intel and IBM put their own development teams on the project.

Larry Sumney, chief executive officer of the SRC, said the hafnium announcements would mean “revolutionary” changes for the chip industry.

“The implications of hafnium-based insulators for the global chip business are revolutionary and have been heralded as the most promising advancements since the introduction of copper interconnect,” he said in a statement. “Dedicated teamwork among several universities and industry has moved decades of research into the mainstream, with the first announcements of planned commercial applications of hafnium-based insulators in just the past few days.”