IBM squeezes more out of chip technology with 7nm breakthrough

IBM has worked with Samsung and silicon chip researchers in an attempt to push the limits of chip technology

An alliance of IBM and Samsung researchers have produced the semiconductor industry’s first 7nm (nanometer) node test chips with functioning transistors.

The breakthrough follows the $3bn investment into chip technology IBM made last year.

Greater levels of miniaturisation enable designers to cram more transistors on a single chip, which increases performance, lowers costs and potentially reduces power consumption.

These factors are important in modern datacentres, where space and energy consumption are at a premium.

The IBM researchers have developed a 7nm chip fabrication in partnership with Global Foundries and Samsung at Suny Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

“Enabling the first 7nm node transistors is a significant milestone for the entire semiconductor industry as we continue to push beyond the limitations of our current capabilities,” said Michael Liehr, Suny Poly executive vice-president of innovation and technology.

The development of 7nm chips could improve the efficiency and scalability of datacentres, which are currently based on 14nm and 22nm technology. IBM said the techniques used to develop 7nm technology could result in at least a 50% power/performance improvement for next-generation mainframe and Power systems that will power the big data, cloud and mobile era.

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The research alliance has claimed a number of industry-first innovations, most notably Silicon Germanium (SiGe) channel transistors and Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography integration at multiple levels in developing the 7nm technology.

“For business and society to get the most out of tomorrow’s computers and devices, scaling to 7nm and beyond is essential,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice-president and director of IBM Research. “Working with our partners, this milestone builds on decades of research that has set the pace for the microelectronics industry, and positions us to advance our leadership for years to come.”

Fifty years ago, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore outlined his vision of how microelectronics would power the modern world – introducing Moore's Law, which predicted the power of microchips would double every 18 months. Chip researchers have tried to follow this model, doubling the performance of their microprocessors every 18 months. But miniaturisation pushes the limits of chip fabrication.

The 7nm breakthrough pushes the limits of Moore’s Law, paving the way for future generations of high-speed microprocessors and memory chips.

Along with 7nm technology, IBM is also researching alternative technologies for post-silicon-era chips.

Read more on Chips and processor hardware

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