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IBM’s Smallest Chip Ever Will Keep Moore’s Law Alive

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We've been reading about the end of Moore's Law – which essentially says that computer chips will double in speed every two years – for quite a while now. Its recent 50th anniversary prompted a wave of media stories predicting the law's demise, but a new innovation from IBM promises to keep the theory going for another few years at least.

IBM and its research partners have produced the smallest computer chip, using new technology aimed at significantly boosting processing power. The new 7 nm chip – the first to be less than 10 nm in size – should extend the lifetime of Moore's Law.

Moore's Law predicts that the number of transistors on a chip – and consequently the processing speed – roughly doubles every two years. The problem is that there's a limit to the number of tiny transistors you can fit on a chip before laws of physics, such as heat dissipation, start to impact efficiency. The 7 nm (7 billionths of a meter) measurement refers to the size of the transistors on the chip. Obviously, the smaller they are, the more that can be fit on a chip — which is why this innovation will keep the Intel founder's law alive, and vastly improve computer speeds.

A commercial version is, however, still about two years away. The 7 nm chip is just a prototype developed by IBM in collaboration with Samsung, GlobalFoundries and various equipment suppliers at a State University of New York (SUNY) nanoscale engineering project in Albany, NY.

The 10 nm chip barrier could not be broken with silicon, so instead, the team used silicon-germanium as the channel material and produced the chip using new technology called extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography. The researchers etched the transistors onto tiny wafers of silicon-germanium by shining this EUV light onto the surface.

"For business and society to get the most out of tomorrow's computers and devices, scaling to 7 nm and beyond is essential," said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research. "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."

Due to tight packing, the 7 nm chip improves the power-performance ratio by almost 50 percent, compared with IBM's 10nm chips, which themselves are twice as powerful as today's 14 nm versions. The development is a huge boon for IBM and puts them ahead of the world's largest chipmaker, Intel, which has struggled to break the 10 nm barrier.

Keeping up with Moore's Law is becoming more difficult and more expensive, but our insatiable thirst for smaller and faster devices means big companies are prepared to spend the billions of dollars on research required to keep the technology moving forward. 

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