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Qualcomm to trial new 3D chip tech

Qualcomm to trial new 3D chip tech

Future Qualcomm chips could gain improved performance thanks to a novel 3D manufacturing technique from CEA-Leti.

Qualcomm has entered into an agreement with CEA-Leti to trial the company's sequential three-dimensional semiconductor technology, a move it hopes will help increase the performance of its future chips while dropping the footprint considerably.

Qualcomm is one of the biggest ARM licensees around, producing the popular range of Snapdragon system-on-chip (SoC) processors found in smartphones and tablets throughout the world. With its focus on portable devices, however, the company has a hard focus on performance per watt and physical package size that its desktop- and laptop-oriented equivalents lack.

The latest example of this is Qualcomm's partnership with Leti, which will see the companies work together to assess the practicality of the latter's sequential 3D integration technology - positioned by the company as an alternative to through-silicon via (TSV) for stacked semiconductor manufacturing.

Where TSV uses multiple planar layers of transistors connected using tunnels, or vias, in the semiconductor material, Leti's process connects active areas of each layer at the transistor level without the need for the through-silicon vias. The result, the company claims, is a process that can be achieved in a single manufacturing flow - unlike the multiple flows required of most TSV implementations - and using standard lithographic processors for alignment.

As companies start to struggle to keep up with Moore's Law - Intel recently having admitted to increased difficulty in doubling transistor count every 18 months - novel approaches are going to be required to continue to trend for improved performance in semiconductors. According to Leti, its sequential 3D integration method can achieve roughly the same improvements - a claimed 50 per cent drop in area and a 30 per cent boost in performance - as a full process node shift but for considerably less cash and without many of the headaches that accompany drops to today's ultra-compact node sizes.

While Leti's technology sounds promising, it's also unproven - and that's where Qualcomm comes in. The company has pledged to work with Leti to assess the practicality of commercial implementation of sequential 3D integration, with a view to using the technology in future generations of its system-on-chip products. Sadly, neither company is currently discussing when exactly that might happen - or, indeed, the chances of what on the surface seems a very promising new manufacturing technique actually proving its worth in the fab rather than the lab.

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