IBM Gives Moore's Law a Boost with Innovative Ultradense Chip

Chris Wiltz

July 13, 2015

3 Min Read
IBM Gives Moore's Law a Boost with Innovative Ultradense Chip

Ask chip manufactures and Moore's Law has been looking more and more like a theory with each passing year. But IBM has just revealed a prototype of an "ultradense" computer chips that the company says has four time the capacity of the most powerful chips on the market.

As The New York Times reported, if successfully adapted for mass production, IBM's new chip, developed in conjunction with SUNY Polytechnic Institute's Colleges of Nanoscience and Engineering as well as partners including GlobalFoundries and Samsung, would perpetuate Moore's Law and ensure computer chips continue to reduce the area needed for transistors by 50 percent up through 2018.


"By making the chips inside computers more powerful and more efficient, IBM and our partners will be able to produce the next generations of servers and storage systems for cloud computing, big data analytics, and cognitive computing." Mukesh Khare, VP, IBM Semiconductor Technology Research, wrote in a blog post.

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The key to IBM's breakthrough lies in both the material used and the production process. Rather than being made entirely of pure silicon, IBM researchers used silicon-germanium (SiGe) to make key regions of the chip's switches. IBM has been manufacturing SiGe-based chips since the late '90s, touting the alloy for its high speeds and low power consumption. Combining SiGe with extreme ultraviolet (EUV) light, IBM was able to etch patterns on chips that allowed the transistors to be a mere 7 nanometers in diameter. By comparison, within the next year, traditional chip manufacturing is expected to go down to 10 nanometers from the current level of 14 nanometers.

Khare said the ultradense technology could someday enable manufacturers to create microprocessors the size of a fingernail with more than 20 billion transistors.

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The larger question for the semiconductor industry now is whether SiGe is the way forward for computer chips. Though its becoming more and more apparent that chip makers are pushing the ceiling with silicon, pure germanium has disadvantages that has kept it from being the go-to material for semiconductors - most notably its cost and susceptibility to damage in high temperatures.

There is also the EUV process to consider. Right now its a very precise, delicate process, and it's not clear how well it will adapt to larger-scale, high-speed manufacturing.

As The NYTimes reports:

It is uncertain whether the longer exposure times required by the new generation of EUV photolithographic stepper machines would make high-speed manufacturing operations impossible. Even the slightest vibration can undermine the precision of the optics necessary to etch lines of molecular thicknesses, and the semiconductor industry has been forced to build specialized stabilized buildings to try to isolate equipment from vibration.

IBM has not yet announced any plans to fully commercialize its ultradense chips, which are still in the research phase. If successfully brought to market, IBM's technology could establish it as a major player in microprocessors alongside Intel and get chip developers looking at new and innovative materials to keep pushing computing power forward.

For it's part IBM has committed to spending $3 billion on further chip development and research. "Looking ahead, there's no clear path to extend the life of the silicon semiconductor further into the future. The next major wave of progress, the 5-nanometer node, will be even more challenging than the 7-nanometer node has been," Khare wrote.

Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News

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