The race got a new leader when IBM announced last week that it and several partners have made working chips with transistors as small as 7 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter; a human hair is 75,000 nanometers in diameter.
The architecture of the chip could accommodate as many as 20 billion transistors — the on-off switches that regulate the flow of electrical current through a chip sort of like the way traffic signals regulate the flow of vehicles through a city. The new chip could be four times faster and use less power than current technologies.
IBM and research partners GlobalFoundries and Samsung became the first to demonstrate that such a small chip could work. (The deal for GlobalFoundries to take over IBM’s chip plants closed earlier this month.)
The ever-shrinking computer chip has helped create new industries over the past five decades. The need for advanced computing technologies keeps growing, with cloud computing, Big Data, analytics, mobile devices, and the Internet of Things demanding more power.
This latest advancement from IBM and its partners means that the multibillion-dollar chip industry will keep development on track for a few more years without radically altering materials or manufacturing processes.
The researchers, however, did dig deep into their advanced technologies to make the chip. The transistors are made of a newly developed combination of silicon and germanium rather than silicon by itself. And a process called extreme ultraviolet lithography was used to lay down the chip’s circuitry patterns. IBM called them “industry-first innovations.”
Further developing those technologies for commercial production of computer chips might take a while, so the chip won’t ship tomorrow. Besides, current technologies that are 10, 14, and 20 nanometers are still working their way through the market.
Although it’s no longer a chip manufacturer business, IBM is still a chip researcher and designer, and in a big way. In 2014 it launched a $3 billion, five-year push in semiconductor research. The 7-nanometer chip isn’t a bad first payoff, but IBM isn’t the only company in the race.
Intel, the biggest chip maker, is working on 7-nanometer technology as is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC).
Intel has indicated that it will use a combination of indium, gallium, and arsenide for its 7-nanometer chip. An Intel chip researcher has said that the company could make the smaller chips without resorting to extreme ultraviolet lithography as IBM and its partners did.
TSMC, the largest contract manufacturer of chips, has said it has entered the advance technology development stage of its 7-nanometer technology. Its efforts in 2015 focus on selecting a transistor architecture, a baseline manufacturing process, and initial reliability evaluations. The company plans pilot production in 2018.
Xilinx, which make chips that can be programmed and reprogrammed while in use, is working with TSMC on developing the new technology.
The space race continues. Let the chips fall where they may.
Tim Green has covered business, technology and science at newspapers and in higher education. At Hoover’s he covers computers and telecommunications.
Photo courtesy of IBM.