In the race to supercharge our laptops and make Artificial Intelligence more powerful, the next breakthrough might surprisingly come from an age-old material – glass. A recent tour of Intel’s ultraclean CH8 factory in Chandler, Arizona, offered a first-hand look at how this technology is being harnessed to revolutionize our computers. The factory, a high-tech building in the desert landscape, is where Intel is transforming sheets of glass into paperclip-sized sandwiches of circuitry using techniques similar to those used in processor manufacturing.
Intel is in the midst of a multi-year transition to a new technology that utilizes glass as a base for processors, as opposed to the current epoxy-like organic resin. This glass foundation, known as a substrate, provides the necessary speed, power, and real estate for the chip industry’s shift towards packaging multiple "chiplets" into a single, larger processor. Essentially, this innovation could offer a new way to continue Moore’s Law, which predicts the steady increase in the number of transistors that can fit into a processor.
Intel’s Glass Substrate Technology: A New Era for Processors
The complexity of computer processors is unfathomable, with engineers precisely selecting atoms from the periodic table to create materials that can direct electron cascades through ultrafast circuits. However, the subsequent breakthrough to boost our laptops’ efficiency and enhance AI’s power could remarkably come from ordinary glass. Intel is set to unveil this glass technology at their Innovation event, and I was privileged to be among the first journalists to understand how this technology operates.
A Leap in Moore’s Law
At Intel’s CH8 factory in Chandler, Arizona, sheets of glass are transformed into mini rectangular sandwiches of circuitry, using similar techniques as the processor itself. Intel has embarked on a transition to new technology that will place processors on a glass bed, as opposed to the current epoxy-like organic resin. This new glass foundation, or substrate, provides the speed, power, and space needed for the chip industry’s shift to new technology packaging multiple "chiplets" into a single larger processor. In essence, this could be a new way to uphold Moore’s Law, which measures progress in fitting more transistors into a processor. By the end of this decade, Intel anticipates processors with a staggering one trillion transistors.
What this Means for the Consumer
According to Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin, Intel’s new glass substrate technology puts them ahead of their rivals in an era where the demand for new processing power exceeds the industry’s capacity to provide it. The implications for consumers are enormous, with laptops and AI tools set to become exponentially more powerful and intelligent in the coming years.
The Transition to Glass Substrates
The entire chip industry is expected to transition to glass substrates, particularly for high-end processors, to address challenges in chipmaking. Intel, with over a decade’s worth of collaborative work with academics and testing novel methods, has turned research and development into a functioning manufacturing line. The glass substrate technology promises to deliver higher performance for their products.
The Power of Packaging
The importance of packaging in the current Intel landscape cannot be understated. Intel’s newest Sapphire Rapids member of the Xeon server processor line uses a technology called EMIB to link four chiplets into one large processor. A smaller chiplet has a lower chance of being spoiled by a manufacturing defect, thus improving manufacturing yields. Intel plans to deliver more chiplet-based designs in 2024, including the big Granite Rapids and bigger Sierra Forest Xeon chips and the Arrow Lake PC chips.
The Future of Chipmaking
The transition from today’s organic substrates to glass presents several challenges, including the brittleness of glass. However, Intel is leveraging the display industry’s glass-handling expertise to navigate these hurdles. The glass substrate technology could be a game-changer for server and data center processors, facilitating a new generation of these devices. As the technology matures and costs reduce, it will eventually be incorporated into personal computers, marking a significant turning point in chipmaking.
Intel’s glass substrate technology could revolutionize the world of processors, promising more powerful and efficient devices. While the transition to this technology presents its own set of challenges, the potential benefits far outweigh the risks. This innovation underscores Intel’s commitment to staying ahead of the curve in a rapidly evolving industry. It is an exciting time for tech enthusiasts, as we stand on the brink of a new era in chipmaking technology.