NASA, the double-helix model, Elvis ... there's a long list of things that emerged during the 1950s which still resonate strongly in 2011, but none more so than the humble silicon transistor. Transistors are the bricks with which the shiny house of modern consumer electronics has been built, but for more than 50 years these bricks have been limited to two dimensions. Now there's a third. Intel has announced that it is putting its revolutionary Tri-Gate 3-D transistor into mass production. The first 22nm microprocessor (codenamed Ivy Bridge) to use the transistors will be rolled-out later this year, delivering huge gains in performance and efficiency compared with chips that use current 2-D planar transistors and helping keep pace with Moore's Law.

Moore's Law as it's known (though Moore's Prediction is a more accurate description) refers to a statement made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and revised in the 1970's which predicts that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit will double about every two years. Technology has kept up with this growth trend for longer than many have anticipated and it seems inevitable that the "Law" will one day come unstuck - but not just yet. Intel has been working on the 3-D transistor for 10 years and the announcement that it will enter volume production is likely to keep Moore's Law intact for years to come.

"For years we have seen limits to how small transistors can get," said Gordon E. Moore. "This change in the basic structure is a truly revolutionary approach, and one that should allow Moore's Law, and the historic pace of innovation, to continue."

Tri-Gate 3-D transistor

While planar transistors form one conducting channel in the gate electrode, 3-D Tri-Gate transistors have a thin vertical fin structure which forms conducting channels on three sides and provides "fully depleted" operation, maximizing current flow when in the "on" state, bringing it as close to zero as possible when in the "off" state and switching between the two incredibly quickly. The 3-D transistors can also be connected together for higher performance and their vertical structure means that they can be squeezed tightly together on the chip. Intel says this translates to a performance increase of up to 37 percent at low voltage versus its 32nm planar transistors. It also means that when performing at the same level as their planar cousins, the Tri-Gate transistors consume less than half the power.

2-D planar vs 3D transistor design

A nanometer, by the way, is one-billionth of a meter, meaning that around 100 million 22nm Tri-Gate transistors could fit onto the head of a pin ... and it can switch on and off over 100 billion times in one second. Intel's first processor - the 4004 - which was introduced in 1971, ran 4000 times slower and used 5000 times more energy.

"The performance gains and power savings of Intel's unique 3-D Tri-Gate transistors are like nothing we've seen before," said Mark Bohr, Intel Senior Fellow. "This milestone is going further than simply keeping up with Moore's Law. The low-voltage and low-power benefits far exceed what we typically see from one process generation to the next. It will give product designers the flexibility to make current devices smarter and wholly new ones possible."

2011 production

Intel says Ivy Bridge is slated for high-volume production readiness by the end of this year and will be introduced in the company's Core family processors at a server level before finding its way into into smaller handheld devices where its low power usage will be ideally suited.