IBM's 7nm chip breakthrough preserves Moore's Law

IBM said it has managed to build a new ultra-dense chip design that is four times as powerful as the best silicon of today with the smallest components.

The company said it could now make chips with parts 7nm wide – the same as a red blood cell – compared with the smallest parts on current chips that are approximately 14nm. The company plans to take the chip out of the lab to replicate them in manufacturing plants and has built a test processor of the chip, which is two generations more advanced than current technology.

Even though the breakthrough is still in the research and development stage, it means Moore’s Law – which describes the steady growth of computer power – will continue for the next few years, putting the minds of those concerned at ease. According to Moore’s Law, computer power should double every couple of years because new ways are found to make computers and components shrink in size.

When it comes to chips, many researchers are already looking to the next two generations, which will shrink things down to 10nm and eventually 7nm. However, there are fears that the decrease would present technical challenges which would slow the pace of the change.

In an interview with the New York Times, IBM said it had overcome the problems by using channels made of silicon and germanium on key parts of processors, so the tiniest elements of the chips worked well.  It had also found a way to use very narrow wavelengths of ultraviolet light to etch components and stack transistors closer together so they did not interfere with each other.

IBM said in a statement that they “have produced advances that will enable the semiconductor industry to pack about twice as many transistors on the chips that power everything from data-crunching servers to mobile devices.

“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 5nm node, will be even more challenging than the 7nm node has been.”

The company has invested $3bn (£1.9bn) in a private-public partnership alongside New York State, GlobalFoundries, Samsung and other equipment vendors with the aim of manufacturing the world's most advanced computer chips.

Electronics firm including Broadcom, Qualcomm and AMD have already signed up to take chips it produces. IBM said chips made using 7nm components should start appearing in computers and other gadgets in 2017-18. An entire chip made using 7nm components would have about 20 billion transistors, said IBM.

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