IBM is to invest $3bn over the next five years developing microchip technology for the new age of cloud computing and big data.

The giant said it was driving two broad programmes of research and development.   Its first is aimed at what it calls ‘7 nanometer (nm) and beyond’ to address the silicon chip’s physical scaling limitations.  The nanometer refers to the size of the tracks on the chip; the smaller the tracks the more devices can be squeezed on but silicon is reaching its physical limits.   While the second will look for new technologies and approaches for ’post-silicon era chips’.

Teams in the US and Europe will be looking in more depth at some current areas of study including such as carbon nanoelectronics, silicon photonics, some new memory technologies, and architectures that support quantum and cognitive computing.

IBM says that scaling to 7nm by the end of the decade is a tough but achievable target. “The question is not if we will introduce 7nm technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?” said John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research.

“There is an urgent need for new materials and circuit architecture designs compatible with this engineering process as the technology industry nears physical scalability limits of the silicon transistor,” said a spokesman.