Intel is honing its sights on many core chips that are far more powerful than today's dual and quad-core processors.

As expected, Intel took a big step in that direction by unveiling a 48-core research chip that it says is 10 to 20 times more powerful than current the top end offering in its multi-core Core line of processors. Intel also noted that the experimental chip uses the same amount of energy as two household light bulbs.

With its eye on the data centre and the cloud, Intel built fully functional cores in the new chip as part of what it calls its "terascale" mission.

"With a chip like this, you could imagine a cloud data centre of the future which will be an order of magnitude more energy efficient than what exists today, saving significant resources on space and power costs," said Justin Rattner, Intel CTO and head of Intel Labs. "Over time, I expect these advanced concepts to find their way into mainstream devices, just as advanced automotive technology such as electronic engine control, air bags and anti-lock braking eventually found their way into all cars."

Today's unveiling of the 48-core research chip comes about two years after Intel showed off an experimental 80-core chip. That research chip had teraflop performance capabilities but used less energy than a quad-core processor.

The 80-cores were not fully functional, however, and the chip was used mainly to study ways to make a large number of cores communicate efficiently with each other, as well as help Intel engineers find new architectural and core designs. At the time, Intel officials said that the company was five to eight years away from building a fully functional, commercial-ready 80-core chip.

Intel reported that it is bringing academics and experts from other high tech firms into the loop by distributing 100 of the experimental 48-core chips so researchers can work on programming models and on developing software that can run on such a high number of cores.

The chip maker, which is slated to unveil six- and eight-core Nehalem chips next year, also noted that it expects to integrate key features of the research chip into a new Core line of commercially available processors by early 2010.

"This is an indication that Intel can deliver on its multi-core strategy," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "It's very important in that it helps validate what Intel contends can be done and it adds credibility to their roadmap. The 80-core chip was more for bragging rights and was more of a science experiment. This one is more of a prototype, less flashy but more functional. It is all part of the process of bringing something new to market."

Intel reported that the 48-core chip is designed with a high-speed, on-chip network for sharing information, along with newly invented power management techniques that allow it to operate at as little as 25 watts, or at 125 watts when running at maximum performance.

The company dubbed the experimental chip as a "single-chip cloud computer" because its architecture resembles that of a cloud computing datacentre.