Smaller transistors suffer from tiny flaws

Shrinking transistors makes them faster and allows designers to squeeze more of them onto a single chip. “But the gotcha is that they also become more highly variable,” says engineer Duane Boning of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When etching tiny transistors and connections, it is impossible to control their size and composition exactly due to random fluctuations during the manufacturing process. In the past that has not mattered because the variations tended to be insignificant compared with the total size of these components. Now, with transistors and other chip components down to around 65 nanometres across – about the width of 130 silicon atoms – variations can be as much as 20 per cent of the components’ total size. That can cause chips to fail or perform poorly, says Boning. For example, differences in the sizes of components on two different chips might make those chips generate signals that differ in frequency to such an extent that the two cannot communicate. To tackle the problem, Boning and graduate student Daihyun Lim developed a test chip that is especially sensitive to variations in the size of its components, and then made multiple copies of it. By measuring the chips’ electrical performance,
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