[LINK] FPGA chips (field programmable gate arrays)

stephen at melbpc.org.au stephen at melbpc.org.au
Tue Jan 16 22:50:58 AEDT 2007

H.P. to Report an Advance in Adaptable Circuitry
By JOHN MARKOFF www.NYTimes.com
Published: January 16, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 15 — Hewlett-Packard researchers have developed a 
novel way to create flexible electronic circuits that could make it 
routine by the end of the decade to modify and upgrade the circuitry in 
computer-based consumer products even after they have been sold.

The technology grows out of an advance in nanocomputing, which involves 
creating circuitry on a molecular scale and making it interact with 
today’s silicon wires and transistors. 

A cellphone using the technology (FPGA chips) could be wirelessly 
upgraded to take advantage of improved wireless network standards. 
Another potential use would be in making ultracheap memory chips, and one 
early application could be in the ink-jet cartridges which Hewlett-
Packard manufactures by the tens of millions. 

The results of the research, which the company plans to report on Tuesday 
and will be the subject of an article in the Jan. 24 issue of the British 
journal Nanotechnology, are the clearest evidence yet that the once 
highly speculative technology could be commercialized soon.

The H.P. researchers are among dozens of groups in the United States and 
elsewhere who have been pursuing molecular computing for more than a 
decade. Even as today’s microelectronics industry continues to shrink the 
size of the wires and switches that make up silicon chips, most engineers 
believe that sometime in the next decade the microelectronics industry 
will run up against fundamental limits. 

That challenge has led a hunt for a new technology in which wires will be 
no more than several molecules wide and switches will be composed of 
single atoms. So far many laboratories have fabricated experimental 
switches and wires on this scale, but little progress has been made on 
the crucial technical challenge of how to move signals between the world 
of molecular computing and today’s microelectronic systems.

Now the researchers report that they have capitalized on a simple idea 
proposed by researchers at Stony Brook University in New York. Last year 
two Stony Brook scientists, Dmitri B. Strukov and Konstantin K. Likharev, 
proposed a novel way to overlay a mesh of molecular-scale wires, or 
nanowires, on top of a conventional chip circuit to move data between the 
two worlds.

In 1985, with Dmitri Averin, while teaching the Moscow State University, 
Likharev proposed a transistor based on the spin of a single electron. 
Two years later researchers at Bell Laboratories developed a prototype of 
such a device.

The Hewlett-Packard design would be a hybrid that contained transistors 
made using conventional photolithography techniques with an accompanying 
mesh of nanowire-connected switches.

“We’ve demonstrated a credible means for shrinking circuit density 
without shrinking transistors,” said Stan Williams, director of quantum 
science research at H.P. Labs. The researchers have simulated the design 
in the lab, and they are starting to build test chips in a laboratory in 
Corvallis, Ore. They hope to have a working prototype within a year.

The Hewlett-Packard researchers, who are based in Palo Alto, Calif., have 
extended the Stony Brook concept and applied it to a class of computer 
chips known as field programmable gate arrays, or FPGA. FPGA chips are 
widely used in the computer industry to design prototype circuits that 
can later be manufactured less expensively. 

To gain flexibility, the FPGA chips use large numbers of transistors that 
can be reconfigured into an infinite array of different circuits. 
Therefore the flexibility entails much higher cost, and the circuits are 
not routinely used in final products, but rather in development systems.

The Stony Brook and H.P. design, however, would make it possible to build 
FPGA circuits that are one-eighth to one-tenth the scale of today’s 
commercial chips. Moreover, they would have the advantage of consuming 
far less power than conventional microchips because the molecular 
computing switches are nonvolatile — that is, they consume power only 
when switching from one state to another. 

Such a breakthrough would allow the flexible FPGA-style chips to be used 
routinely in consumer products manufactured by the tens of millions. It 
is this advance that could lead to the ability to modify or upgrade the 
circuitry of standard consumer electronics products already in use. 

Cheers all ..
Stephen Loosley
Victoria, Australia

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