Intel and Ministry of Defence spin-off Qinetiq have successfully built transistors using an exotic material called indium antimonide that allows for far lower voltages than is possible with current devices, the companies said on Wednesday.

The breakthrough, the result of two years' collaborative research, is designed to help head off limitations that will soon begin to affect the current processes for transistor manufacturing. The companies said indium antimonide (InSb) could be used in manufacturing in the middle of the next decade.

"Indium antimonide is one example of several new materials that Intel will continue to investigate in order to ensure that Moore’s Law extends well beyond the next decade," said Ken David, director of components research for Intel’s Technology and Manufacturing Group, in a statement.

Qinetiq first developed InSb for transistors as part of a project with the UK Ministry of Defence, and began working with Intel to commercialise the technology. Qinetiq was founded in 2001 from the majority of DERA (Defence Evaluation and Research Agency), the laboratories of the UK MOD, and has since launched a number of commercial products, mostly in the defence and security markets. "Although this research is still in the initial phase it still shows huge promise for advanced applications," stated Tim Phillips, business manager of Qinetiq's Fast Transistors group.

InSb could allow transistors to operate at ten times lower power consumption than current transistors for the same performance, or could give them three times the performance for the same power consumption, researchers said. For the past two years Intel and Qinetiq have been looking at materials such as InSb that are made from elements in the III and V columns of the periodic table and have similar low-voltage properties.

The companies achieved their results using a "depletionmode" InSb NMOS transistor, which is turned off using a negative voltage, rather than the common practice of using voltage to switch a gate. The results were first published in a paper called "Novel InSb based Quantum Well Transistors for Ultra-High-Speed, Low Power Logic Applications", at the International Conference on Solid-State and Integrated-Circuit Technology 2004 in Beijing. The paper, and others, can be found on Intel's website.

Other major IT companies are also involved in research designed to overcome the inherent limitations of current semiconductor technology. Last week, HP's Quantum Science Research Group created a tiny device that can perform one of the essential logic functions in computing devices that measure just nanometers across. The technology could eventually be used to complement and even replace current transistors, HP said.