Fins on transistors change processor power and performance

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Editor’s note: This article is by IBM Research Scientist Dr. Sani Nassif.

IBM, University of Glasgow and the Scottish Funding Council are collaborating on a project to simulate 3D microprocessor transistors at a mere 14 nanometer scale (the virus that causes the common cold is more than twice as large at 32 nanometers). Using a silicon-on-insulator (SOI) substrate, the FinFET (fin field-effect transistor) project, called StatDES, promises to keep improving microprocessor performance and energy conservation.

Evolving from flat to 3D transistors

Microprocessors in everything from mainframes to phones are almost all built with planar complimentary metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistors – CMOS FETs. A design that goes back to the late 1950s, these transistors sit next to one another on the chip. It’s a design that is falling out of favor as we work towards more powerful, more efficient devices that don’t take up more energy to operate.

FinFET transistor’s raised pillar of silicon (the “fin”) is the conduit for current flow, and is modulated by a gate that surrounds the fin. The gate acts much like how stepping on a garden hose stops the water from flowing.

In flat devices, this modulation comes from one side only (the top), while FinFETs allow this modulation from two sides, and therefore allow the flow to be turned off much more effectively. This increased effectiveness translates to improved performance and reduced wasted energy.

And the industry is quickly catching on to FinFETs. The design is 37 percent faster in low-voltage applications and uses 50 percent less power than CMOS FETs.

Meeting the challenge to scale FinFET technology

The StatDES project is tweaking the FinFET design to improve its scalability. Up until now, they have been made by etching grooves in a bulk wafer, so extra steps are required to ensure that each FinFET is insulated from the others. IBM avoids the issues of etching grooves in the wafer by putting the transistors on an insulating Silicon-Oxide using standard SOI.

Gold Standard Simulations Ltd.(GSS), established by IBM’s project partner University of Glasgow, has also shown reduced performance in recent research of FinFETs on bulk wafers at 22 nm. Using SOI appears to mitigate this phenomenon.

The shape affects current flow in the same way that the shape of that garden hose affects the amount of water flowing through it. University of Glasgow Professor and GSS CEO Asen Asenov writesthat as more current is conducted through the device, it crowds into the apex of the triangle. As a result, the triangular shape fins result in a 12 – 15 percent performance reduction compare to rectangular shape fins.

Asenov told the EE Times that “moving to FinFETs constructed on SOI wafers could solve a number of problems … The buried oxide layer means you don’t have the problem of filling trenches.

The easier-to-fabricate SOI FinFETs with rectangular fins can deliver 20 – 25 percent improvement in performance compared to the current mass production bulk FinFETs.

The StatDES project is set to simulate 14 nm SOI FinFETs, and make predictions that will help designers determine how they will get the maximum utilization of this advanced technology.

What FinFET on SOI means for IT

When FinFETs become widely available, the industry can expect the continuation of the historical trends of technology performance, over time – Moore’s Law. Today’s planar devices will not be able to follow this trend.

Without moving to FinFETs, we would be stuck with the computers and devices we have today.

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