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IBM today announced that it has developed a chip with 2-nanometer technology, ostensibly the world’s first. The company expects the hardware to improve performance by 45% using the same amount of power or use 75% less energy while maintaining the same performance as today’s 7-nanometer-based computer chips.
Semiconductors play a role in everything from appliances to smartphones, cars, and even electrical grid infrastructure. Demand for increased chip performance and energy efficiency continues to rise, particularly in the era of hybrid cloud, AI, and the internet of things. For example, at least one study shows that the amount of compute used to train the largest models for natural language processing and other applications has increased 300,000 times in six years.
Smaller and faster
IBM says its 2-nanometer-based chip, which was developed by the company’s research division in Albany, New York lab using nanosheet technology, can fit 50 billion transistors onto a 300-millimeter wafer roughly the size of a fingernail. A leap from IBM’s 7-nanometer Power10 processor, which is scheduled to debut later this year, it will lay the foundation for future systems — proprietary and from third parties. IBM says it will potentially accelerate advancements in AI, 5G, edge computing, autonomous systems, and quantum computing.
As the company explains, increasing the number of transistors per chip makes them smaller, faster, and more reliable. Replacing current chips with 2-nanometer-based processors could lead to reductions in energy costs and the carbon footprint of datacenter operators. Datacenters currently account for 1% of global energy use, or 580 million terajoules. Upgrading servers to 2-nanometer-based processors could reduce that number.
“The innovation reflected in this new chip is essential to the creation of new, more powerful technology platforms that can help our society address major challenges, from climate and sustainability to food scarcity,” IBM Research SVP Dario Gil said in a press release. “It is the product of a collaborative approach to innovation that shows how quickly breakthroughs can result from deep collaboration and shared investment. As governments explore ways to further push the envelope on chip technology, the ecosystem that delivered the world’s first 2-nanometer chip provides a powerful example to follow.”
Forging ahead in the face of challenges
While companies like IBM tout the benefits of 2-nanometer semiconductor process technology, some experts aren’t convinced the path to market will be worth it. As EE Times’ Rick Merritt pointed out in a recent piece, the increasing complexity and cost of making ever-smaller chips is leading to diminishing returns.
TSMC, the world’s largest foundry, recently said its 4-nanometer chip process is on track for risk production at the end of 2021 and mass production in 2022. While its 3-nanometer processors are expected in the second half of 2022, TSMC’s 2-nanometer version — which the company started researching in 2019 — is in development.
As for Intel, the chip giant plans to finalize 3-nanometer and 2-nanometer nodes for 2025 and 2027, respectively. If the company sticks to its current roadmap, 1.4-nanometer production could begin in 2029.
One wrinkle in the production of 2-nanometer-based chips is likely to be the ongoing global chip shortage. A confluence of factors — including the pandemic, the tech war between the U.S. and China, and secular tailwinds — have squeezed the semiconductor market and will continue to do so until at least 2022, according to TSMC. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger is less optimistic, saying recently that he believes the chip shortage will take “a couple of years” to abate.
Spotty semiconductor availability has forced a number of automakers to halt production and cancel shifts in the U.S. And last week, Apple, Samsung, and Caterpillar warned of current or potential impacts, including to tablets, smartphones, and construction equipment.
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