IBM Research has announced a semiconductor chip breakthrough, introducing the world’s first 7-nanometre chip which will enable a 50% increase in processing speeds.
The technology is the product of research carried out by IBM Research, GlobalFoundries and the State University of New York. The joint project has so far cost in the region of $3bn (approx. £1.9bn) and hopes to establish a greater standard of superfast, compact processors and extend Moore’s law, signalling a steady progress in the computer industry over the next few years.
“It’s a major step […] We have been working on this technology for more than five years,” said Mukesh Khare, IBM Research’s vice president of semiconductor technology.
Khare added that the effort had been “a grand challenge and a monumental task.”
IBM’s latest processor cuts the size of the transistors housed inside the chip to measure just three times wider than a strand of human DNA. The team achieved this scale by developing a new manufacturing process. Instead of regular silicon they used silicon-germanium, a highly-conductive material, to transport the charge through the chip’s transistors. The researchers also used extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography to imprint the pattern – an extremely high-frequency laser technique to inscribe smaller designs onto the chip’s surface than had previously been possible.
Dutch developer ASML Holding builds the EUV tools which can cost around $150mn compared to standard lithography systems which cost up to $50mn.
Mark Bohr, a senior fellow at rival company Intel, argued that his firm would successfully achieve a 7-nanometre chip without expensive EUV technology, but has yet to detail any other specifics of Intel’s 7-nanometre project.
Currently 10nm nodes are commercially available from Intel, TSMC, GlobalFoundries, and Samsung. The 7-nano IBM chip is not likely to be available for commercial use for at least a few years.