Computers coming in 2024 with Intel’s Arrow Lake processors will get a boost in speed thanks to a new technique that sends electrical power through the chips.
In tests detailed Monday, Intel said the technology, which it calls PowerVia, offered a 6 percent increase in speed on test chips. Another big change called RibbonFET that comes with Arrow Lake should offer additional benefits.
That’s a big deal for Intel, which is struggling to regain the once-great chip-making edge it lost to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and Samsung. These two companies are “foundry” companies that make other chips, in particular Intel’s biggest competitors: Apple, AMD, Nvidia and Qualcomm, but they are not expected to match PowerVia later.
If PowerVia and RibbonFET arrive on time in 2024 with the Intel 20A manufacturing process, then get upgraded to 18A in 2025, it could help Intel better compete with competing chips when it comes to packing a lot circuits and work efficiently to extend battery life. Apple’s MacBook laptops run without power for hours, and many models completely remove the cooling fan to protect their chips from overheating.
“It looks like a good incremental step” but not a permanent advantage for Intel, Tirias Research analyst Kevin Krewell told PowerVia. “Everyone will follow suit and have the same technology over time.”
And since Intel is also trying to become a foundry, this could mean that some of these competitors may actually become customers who, like Intel’s own chips, will benefit. Intel missed out on making smartphone chips, but in Intel’s ideal future it could build the Apple processor that powers a future iPhone.
Familiarize yourself with the rear power supply
Chips process data and perform calculations using tiny electrical switches called transistors that can be turned on and off billions of times per second. Today, the power required for this comes from equally tiny electrical connections that run through a complex 3D maze of wires that also carry instruction signals to the transistors.
But with Arrow Lake, the 2024 successor to this year’s Meteor Lake PC processor, Intel will decouple power from the communications links, moving it to the opposite side of the chip. In the semiconductor industry, this is called a reverse power network, but Intel calls its version PowerVia.
“PowerVia is a revolutionary change for on-chip interconnects that improves power, performance, area and cost, all important dimensions of transistor design,” said Ben Sell, an Intel vice president who worked on the technology.
The rear power supply originates from Imec, a Belgian research laboratory funded by several chipmakers to develop new technology. Along with better performance, the technology should also ease data connections to the front of the chips, helping chipmakers shrink transistors even further, said Julien Ryckaert, Imec’s vice president of logic technology.
And with Intel, TSMC and Samsung chasing it, back-end power is “now establishing itself as a mainstream technology,” Ryckaert said.
Production progress issues
By including PowerVia in its highest-volume, highest-profile processor, Intel is counting on the rear power supply to perform well and not bog down production with defective chips. To guard against this potential disaster, Intel developed PowerVia using test chips built with its current Intel 4 manufacturing process used to create Meteor Lake elements. It works well enough to be standard on the Intel 20A and its successor, the 18A.
PowerVia is a key element in Intel’s recovery efforts. In its relentless drive to miniaturize transistors to keep up with Moore’s Law, Intel got stuck a decade ago and hasn’t fully recovered. Although Samsung and TSMC are working on the rear power supply, PowerVia can beat it in the market. For example, TSMC’s back-end power technology isn’t expected until 2026.
“From everything we know, this comes a node ahead of what the industry is doing and gives our customers the benefits of PowerVia as soon as possible,” Sell said. The node is an important step in chip manufacturing technology.
PowerVia adds new processing steps to the hundreds already required to make a chip. After the transistors are carefully built on the front of a silicon wafer of chips, the wafer must be flipped, thinned, polished, and have power connections installed.
This adds cost and time. But removing the power lines from the front of the wafer means there is more room for communications connections, simplifying the design and overall reducing manufacturing costs.