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In semiconductor chip research, IBM has been racking up the breakthroughs for decades. And now it says that work is paying off with the creation of the first 7-nanometer chips. This means that the miniaturized electronics are so small that transistors on the chips are only 7 billionth of a meter in length. That’s 1,400 times smaller than a human hair.

And these chips will ensure that industry progress, summarized as Moore’s Law (after a prediction made in 1965 by Intel chairman emeritus Gordon Moore that the number of components on a chip would double every couple of years), will continue for at least another generation. Once the chips proliferate in the market, we’ll see faster, cheaper, and better electronics products out in the marketplace, from faster computers to smarter “Internet of things” devices, or everyday objects that are smart and connected.

IBM said that this latest milestone is the fruit of a $3 billion, five-year investment in chip research and development that the company announced last year. In a way, the announcement is bittersweet. For while IBM still does leading-edge chip research, it agreed to sell off its chip manufacturing business to GlobalFoundries last year (the deal was finally approved last week). IBM also credited ten different breakthroughs over decades that made the 7-nanometer transistors on the chips possible.

IBM said that its systems business will continue to use the most advanced semiconductors based on IBM research innovations, but those chips will now likely be manufactured by GlobalFoundries.

IBM's 7-nanometer chip has circuits that are 1,400 times smaller than a human hair.

Above: IBM’s 7-nanometer chip has circuits that are 1,400 times smaller than a human hair.

Image Credit: IBM

The first chips that IBM has fabricated with the latest breakthrough are 7-nanometer test node chips with functional transistors. That means commercial versions of the chips are still some time away. Today’s best chips, such as microprocessors that power our desktops and laptops, use 22-nanometer and 14-nanometer technology. The next manufacturing technology to arrive will be 10-nanometer production, and 7-nanometer chips will arrive after that.

IBM said the 7-nanometer breakthrough was made possible through its partnership with New York state, its development alliance with GlobalFoundries, its partnerships with Samsung and chip manufacturing equipment suppliers, and IBM researchers based at SUNY Poly’s NanoTech Complex in Albany, N.Y.

IBM said that 7-nanometer chips will push the limits of technology to meet the demands of cloud computing, big data, cognitive computing, and mobile products.

Developing a viable 7-nanometer node technology has been one of the grand challenges of the semiconductor industry, IBM said. Pursuing such small dimensions through conventional processes has degraded chip performance and negated the expected benefits of scaling — or shrinking chips to get higher performance, lower cost and lower power requirements.

IBM said researchers feared that 7-nanometer chips would be out of reach due to fundamental barriers of technology. But IBM said it used new semiconductor processes and techniques pioneered by IBM Research. It capitalized on past innovations such as silicon germanium (SiGe), channel transistors, and Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography integration at multiple levels. Those innovations helped IBM cut 50 percent of the chip size compared to the best 10-nanometer technology currently available.

Ten breakthroughs that led to 7-nanometer chips.

Above: Ten breakthroughs that led to 7-nanometer chips.

Image Credit: IBM

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