Three of the biggest names in the computer chip industry are expected to announce today that they're joining with three government laboratories in a $250-million effort to develop an advanced chip-making process.
The project, to be led by Intel Corp. and including Motorola Inc. and Advanced Micro Devices, would rank in dollar terms as the largest commercial research partnership between industry and government.
The federal government's national laboratories--including Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley and Sandia, the three Energy Department labs involved in the new chip project--have for years been building closer relationships with industry in an effort to stay relevant in the post-Cold War era.
Chip makers also are continually looking for ways to shrink the electrical circuits that enable a chip to store and process information: The smaller the circuits, the more of them can go on a single chip, making for a more powerful chip.
Most experts believe that within a decade or so the current photographic process will begin to hit the limits of physics and that a fundamentally new approach will be needed. The three companies and the three labs will be betting on a process called extreme ultraviolet.
Other developers will continue to work on competing alternatives using X-rays or particle beams.
If the work is successful, it could make possible future generations of memory chips that would store 1,000 times more information than today's most sophisticated versions. Microprocessors--the brains that run personal computers--could be 100 times faster, turning the kinds of computers that children use to learn arithmetic and play games into machines more powerful than the supercomputers of the early 1980s.
Intel, Motorola and AMD are establishing a nonprofit company called EUV that will provide $130 million in cash to cover the salaries of government researchers, as well as $120 million of noncash aid. The three labs engaged in the project will have rights to use the resulting technologies for their own purposes.
Energy Secretary Federico Pena said the partnership with industry shows "how much confidence there is in the private sector in our labs."
Over the last eight years, the national labs have spent about $800 million developing technology in conjunction with industry. The weapons labs in particular--Livermore, Sandia and Los Alamos--believe that helping industry is critical if they're to avoid major downsizing.
Those projects have had a mixed record. Many became mired in bureaucracy. Few produced products that industry was eager to sell. And although the companies contributed people, materials and facilities, they have seldom helped pay the salaries of the government researchers.