A Glimpse of a Microchip’s Delicate Architecture

By Nathaniel Scharping | March 15, 2017 3:49 pm
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A 3-D rendering of the internal structure of a microchip. The material in yellow is copper — showing the processor’s circuit connections which link the individual transistors. The smallest lines shown are individually around 45 nanometers wide. (Credit: Mirko Holler)

Computer chips continue to shrink ever smaller, but we still wring more processing power out of them.

One of the problems that comes with taking our technology to the nanoscale, however, is that we can no longer see what’s going on with them. Computer chips, with their arrays of transistors laid out like cities, have components that measure as little as 14 nanometers across, or about 5,000 times smaller than a red blood cell. Checking out these wonders of engineering without using expensive and destructive imaging techniques is a challenge, to say the least. 

Viewing Technology With Technology

Researchers from the Paul Scherrer Institut in Switzerland say that they may have found a way to look into microchips without ever touching them. Using an imaging technique similar to Computed Tomography (CT) scans, they bombarded a chip with X-rays and used a computer to assemble a 3-D reconstruction of its delicate architecture. The process works by taking a series of 2-D images based on how the X-rays bounce off of the structures, which is then combined into a realistic model.

In a paper published Wednesday in Nature, say that they can resolve details as small as 14.6 nanometers, or about the size of the smallest components in today’s commercial chips. They tested their technique first on a chip with a familiar layout, and then one that wasn’t — both times they successfully reconstructed a model of the chip’s inner workings with enough detail to see how it functioned, including the transistors and interconnects. The images show the intricate patterns of interconnected transistors on the silicon surface — some chips today can contain upwards of 5 billion transistors.

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A cross-section rendering shows how the transistor array is laid out three-dimensionally. (Credit: Mirko Holler)

Check for Flaws

While their method currently necessitates drilling out a cylindrical section of the chip, they say that future improvements should allow them to image whole chips without destroying them. This would allow scientists to actually see the interior design of some of their tiniest creations.

Chip manufacturers could check their products for defects, especially when it comes to critical components of medical and aviation equipment. Chips are made in spotless laboratories to prevent even the smallest speck of dust from interfering with the etching process that carves lines of positively and negatively doped silicon into the chips to serve as transistors. The defects, if they exist, are far too small to spot with the naked eye.

These kinds of imaging techniques may need to follow their own variant of Moore’s Law, however. IBM recently announced that they had come up with a microchip containing components just seven nanometers across — too small for the researchers to get a glimpse of. As our technology gets smaller, our eyes will need to get sharper.

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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Chips are made in spotless laboratories” No. Chips are made in ISO 3,2,1 (FED STD 209E Class 1 and better) modular multi-$billion automated fabs. The current single crystal raw silicon wafer is 300 mm diameter, 0.775 mm thick. 450 mm has had problems.

    My Intel Core i7-975X, does 3.47 GHz and 130W DC, 0.8 – 1.375 V, then max drawing at least 94.5 amps through those tiny wires. It has dual heat tube thermal sinks with a push-pull pair of fans, bonded to the processor with diamond dust thermal paste. The cores top around 54 °C, redline around 100 °C (HWinINFO064). Vacuum the insides twice/year.

    Copper appeared when large current density chips electromigrated aluminum and shorted. The same thing happens in aluminum house wiring, causing inside-the-wall fires.

    Computer chips continue to shrink ever smaller, but we still wring more processing power out of them.” You are unclear on the concept, power consumption to connection delay.

    • Mongo

      94.5 a??!! 130 w!? 212 deg. F? How? Superconducting!? Hard to believe those numbers.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        DC, P = IV. 130 W/1.375 V = 94.5 A. My case top fan is seven inches in diameter. My box does serious work. Obviously the four cores are not continuously running flat out, but they do run 50+% for extended periods. 50 amps CPU input is unremarkable. 90% of rating is failure. If you purchase crap, CPU speed is throttled down vs. cooling.

        House Al wiring had multiple failure modes. Even clever local connects had their wires squirming out.

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  • OWilson

    If someone had told me when I was starting a family and swapping defective valves in my Motorola TV set with new ones from the drug store, that a few years later they would be able to replicate the flawless performance of 5,000,000,000 of them on a flake the size of a fingernail!

    Or that my computer with 2-4Tb drives could store as much data as a pile of the last 3.5 floppies that would reach to the moon and back twice (I did the calculation).

    I would have been “blown away” in N.A. or “gob smacked” in the U.K. :)

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