IBM has broken the 10nm barrier and has developed the very first 7nm chipset, successfully pushing Moore's Law for the next couple of years or so.

Working with Samsung, GlobalFoundries and the State University of New York (SUNY), IBM has produced a 7nm chipset that it claims has "at least a 50 percent power/performance improvement" over the current 10nm chips that Intel is currently working on.

To give laypeople an idea of how significant this new development is, 14nm is the current state-of-the-art chipset when it comes to powering today's hottest electronics. While 14nm is already very small, a 14nm chip is 7,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair or only six times wider than a DNA strand. To further shrink down a chip's size to 7nm is quite a feat, even for a company such as IBM.

This also means that IBM has extended Moore's Law for another few years. Moore's Law was postulated by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore half a century ago when he observed that the number of transistors on a chip doubled every two years, thereby increasing performance while chips became smaller and smaller.

This is the exact same law that saw the transformation of computing devices from the massive refrigerator-like mainframes of the past to the sleek, fast and powerful smartphones in our pockets.

However, as chipmakers continue to miniaturize their transistors, it has become more and more difficult to stay on Moore's Law. Mukesh Khare, head of IBM's semiconductor research, said achieving the 7nm breakthrough was an "extremely difficult" task that took five years in the making.

To accomplish this, IBM used a material called silicon germanium to improve the mobility of electrons and speed up the process by which the transistors turn on and off. IBM also introduced extreme ultraviolet light (EUV) photolithography to etch the circuitry patterns into the chip. Currently, chipmakers use visible ultraviolet light, which has a width of 193nm for photolithography, which is painstaking since using a 193nm beam of light to draw on a 14nm transistor entails a lot of complicated workarounds.

EUV, on the other hand, is only 13.5nm in width, which should make it a little bit easier to use for the etching process. However, IBM stresses even using EUV has been "really hard."

"These invisible light waves are almost X-rays in wavelength!" said Richard Doherty, analyst at Envisioneering. "The optics are different, the masks, the materials—everything!"

As for when we can expect devices powered by 7nm chips, it is still unclear if IBM's smallest transistors are commercially viable for mass production, but Khare says the goal is to bring the 7nm chips to market.

"The IBM Research alliance's work focuses on technology that can be used towards IBM's and our partners' needs," he said. "The 7nm node defined by the IBM alliance and the test chip produced here are towards the same goal and is expected to meet technology requirements for products."

Photo: IBM Research | Flickr

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