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IBM pouring billions into R&D semiconductor design

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IBM says it plans to invest over $3 billion over the next five years in research and development of future chip technology.

The company says the need for advanced chip technologies will be necessary to meet the ever-growing demands of cloud computing and big data systems. The programs being funded by IBM are geared toward the development of smaller and more powerful chips. Another goal of the project is to develop the technology to produce semiconductor chips from other materials than the traditional silicon.

At the same time IBM is pouring money into research and development of chip technology, it is actively pursuing the divestiture of some of its chip manufacturing facilities. The company may be planning to maintain its ownership of the technology of its chips, with less focus on controlling the means of producing those chips. The company stated that "these investments will push IBM's semiconductor innovations from today's breakthroughs into the advanced technology leadership required for the future."

The first research effort will center around "7 nanometer and beyond" silicon technology that will attempt to hurdle the physical and technical limitations that impede current semiconductor scaling abilities, restricting progress in chip manufacturing.

The second program is a think-outside-the-box effort to develop alternative means of manufacturing chips, including the use of nontraditional materials beyond silicon.

IBM will throw money at areas of research already in progress at Big Blue, including carbon nanoelectronics, silicon photonics, memory technologies and cognitive computing.

Semiconductor design and manufacturing technology is currently fixed at the 22-nanometer level. It is believed that reductions down to 14 and then to 10 will occur within the next few years. The industry objective is to get to the aforementioned "7 and beyond" standard.

"The question is not if we will introduce 7-nanometer into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?" said John Kelly, senior vice president of IBM Research. "IBM engineers and scientists, along with our partners, are well-suited for this challenge and are already working on the materials required to meet the demands of emerging requirements for cloud, big data and cognitive systems."

The problem with silicon, according to IBM, is that there are physical limitations that are now being reached in terms of size reduction. Due to certain laws of physics and the composition of silicon, attempts to further scale down silicon chips will be met with diminishing returns.

In other words, to reach the next level of processing power combined with ever-smaller chip sizes, alternatives to the use of silicon in chip manufacturing must be found and developed.

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