IBM said on Thursday that it had made working versions of ultradense computer chips, with roughly four times the capacity of today’s most powerful chips.
The announcement, made on behalf of an international consortium led by IBM, the giant computer company, is part of an effort to manufacture the most advanced computer chips in New York’s Hudson Valley, where IBM is investing $3 billion in a private-public partnership with New York State, GlobalFoundries, Samsung and equipment vendors.
The development lifts a bit of the cloud that has fallen over the semiconductor industry, which has struggled to maintain its legendary pace of doubling transistor density every two years.
Intel, which for decades has been the industry leader, has faced technical challenges in recent years. Moreover, technologists have begun to question whether the longstanding pace of chip improvement, known as Moore’s Law, would continue past the current 14-nanometer generation of chips.
Each generation of chip technology is defined by the minimum size of fundamental components that switch current at nanosecond intervals. Today the industry is making the commercial transition from what the industry generally describes as 14-nanometer manufacturing to 10-nanometer manufacturing.
The company said on Thursday that it had working samples of chips with seven-nanometer transistors. It made the research advance by using silicon-germanium instead of pure silicon in key regions of the molecular-size switches.
The new material makes possible faster transistor switching and lower power requirements. The tiny size of these transistors suggests that further advances will require new materials and new manufacturing techniques.
As points of comparison to the size of the seven-nanometer transistors, a strand of DNA is about 2.5 nanometers in diameter and a red blood cell is roughly 7,500 nanometers in diameter. IBM said that would make it possible to build microprocessors with more than 20 billion transistors.
“I’m not surprised, because this is exactly what the road map predicted, but this is fantastic,” said Subhashish Mitra, director of the Robust Systems Group in the Electrical Engineering Department at Stanford University.