Intel has made what it claims are the fastest silicon transistors ever built.

It said the achievement proves semiconductor performance can continue its rapid advance through to the end of the decade without the need for radical changes in the way chips are manufactured.

The transistors, scheduled for commercial use in about 2007, should enable Intel to make processors that are about 10 times as fast as its current top-of-the-line chips.

Developed by researchers at Intel Labs, the transistors are just 70 to 80 atoms in width and three atoms thick, said Rob Willoner, a market analyst with Intel's technology and manufacturing group.

Transistors act like tiny switches that control the flow of electrons through a chip. Intel says its minuscule components can be turned on and off one and a half trillion times a second, making them the world's fastest.

Intel claims it will be able to cram as many as one billion transistors on a single microprocessor, boosting the speed of its chips to about 20GHz. Intel's fastest processor to date, the Pentium 4, has 42 million transistors and runs at 1.7GHz.

The lithography techniques currently used to burn circuits on to the surface of chips are nearing certain physical limits. Intel's engineers used tricks such as overexposing the light to create their transistors, but that method won't be practical for volume production.

Intel expects to use (EUV)extreme ultra violet lithography to print its billion-transistor chips. This technology is still being developed by a consortium including Intel, IBM, AMD and Motorola.

As the transistor count increases, so does the amount of heat produced, presenting another big challenge. At a chip conference in San Francisco earlier this year, an Intel executive warned that if engineers don't devise creative methods to reduce the amount of heat produced by the chips they will have "thermal densities that are greater than a nuclear reactor".

As well as being faster, the transistors should also consumer less power. Today's Pentium 4 processors operate at about 1.7 volts, while chips built using the new technology will run at less than one volt.