VTFET chip breakthrough Dec 21

IBM and Samsung unveil supremely energy-efficient semiconductor design

Image credit: IBM

The companies claim their vertical device architecture could reduce a chip's energy usage to such an extent that smartphones might only need charging once a week.

The global semiconductor shortage has highlighted the critical role of investment in chip research and development and the importance of chips in everything from computing, to appliances, communication devices, transportation systems and critical infrastructure.

IBM and Samsung Electronics have jointly announced a breakthrough in semiconductor design using a new vertical transistor architecture that demonstrates a path to scaling beyond nanosheet and has the potential to reduce energy usage by 85 per cent compared to a scaled fin field-effect transistor (finFET).

The new vertical transistor breakthrough could help the semiconductor industry continue its relentless journey to deliver significant improvements, including a potential device architecture that enables semiconductor device scaling to continue beyond nanosheet, smartphone batteries that could last a week or more without being charged, and energy-intensive processes, such as cryptomining operations and data encryption, requiring significantly less energy and thus having a smaller carbon footprint.

Other possibilities are the continued expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) and edge devices with lower energy needs, allowing them to operate in more diverse environments such as ocean buoys, autonomous vehicles, and spacecraft.

"Today's technology announcement is about challenging convention and rethinking how we continue to advance society and deliver new innovations that improve life, business and reduce our environmental impact," said Dr Mukesh Khare, vice president (hybrid cloud and systems), IBM Research. "Given the constraints the industry is currently facing along multiple fronts, IBM and Samsung are demonstrating our commitment to joint innovation in semiconductor design and a shared pursuit of what we call 'hard tech'."

Moore's Law, the principle that the number of transistors incorporated in a densely populated IC chip will approximately double every two years, is quickly nearing what are considered insurmountable barriers. Simply put, as more and more transistors are crammed into a finite area, engineers are running out of space.

Historically, transistors have been built to lie flat upon the surface of a semiconductor, with the electric current flowing laterally, or side-to-side, through them. With new Vertical Transport Field Effect Transistors, or VTFET, IBM and Samsung have successfully implemented transistors that are built perpendicular to the surface of the chip with a vertical, or up-and-down, current flow.

The VTFET process addresses many barriers to performance and limitations to extend Moore's Law as chip designers attempt to pack more transistors into a fixed space. It also influences the contact points for the transistors, allowing for greater current flow with less wasted energy. Overall, the new design aims to deliver a two times improvement in performance or an 85 per cent reduction in energy use as compared to scaled finFET alternatives.

Recently, IBM announced the 2nm chip technology breakthrough which will allow a chip to fit up to 50 billion transistors in a space the size of a fingernail. VTFET innovation focuses on a whole new dimension, which offers a pathway to the continuation of Moore's Law.

Innovation at the Albany Nanotech Complex, New York, is often directed towards commercialisation, and on that end of the chip lifecycle the companies also announced that Samsung will manufacture IBM's chips at the 5nm node. These chips are anticipated to be used in IBM's own server platforms. This follows the announcement in 2018 that Samsung would manufacture IBM's 7nm chips, which became available in the IBM Power10 family of servers earlier this year. The IBM Telum processor, also revealed earlier this year, is similarly manufactured by Samsung using IBM's designs.

IBM's legacy of semiconductor breakthroughs includes the first implementation of 7nm and 5nm process technologies, High-k metal gate technology, channel SiGe transistors, single-cell DRAM, the Dennard Scaling Laws, chemically amplified photoresists, copper interconnect wiring, Silicon on Insulator technology, multi-core microprocessors, embedded DRAM, and 3D chip stacking.

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