Researchers Roll Out Free Software to Advance Computer Chip Design

The transistors are formed by the vertical red bars in the image, which are 15nm wide (though designers use the term "length," for various arcane reasons). The width of the whole circuit pictured is about 1 micron (or 1000 nm). Image courtesy of Rhett Davis.

Engineering researchers have developed new software, called FreePDK15, to facilitate chip design – and are making it freely available in order to foster new research focused on pushing the frontiers of computer technology.

“State-of-the-art transistors are now 15 nanometers (nm) long, and you can fit a billion of those transistors on a single chip,” says Rhett Davis, an electrical and computer engineering researcher at NC State. “That means we need software to design those chips – and ours is the first free software that enables that level of chip design. There are no confidentiality agreements to hold researchers back and no strings attached, since one of our goals is to bring more people into the chip design field.”

Davis launched the FreePDK project and oversaw development of the software by a team of students and private sector volunteers with the support of fellow NC State researcher Paul Franzon.

The FreePDK15 software gives chip designers accurate rules and definitions for what optical lithography can (and can’t) do on the 15 nm scale. Optical lithography is the technology used to print transistor designs on a chip.

“Basically, the software allows designers free rein to explore new ideas, while keeping them within the bounds of what is physically possible,” Davis explains.

FreePDK15 is available for download here. This is not the first free software from Davis’s team. They issued FreePDK45 in 2007 to facilitate design at the 45 nm scale. That software was used for educational purposes at hundreds of institutions, and was cited in more than 200 scholarly papers.

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