IBM reveals 7nm microchip breakthrough, continues Moore’s law

IBM Research has just announced a major breakthrough in chip manufacturing, producing the first working microchip on a 7nm process. IBM believes the research will result in a 50% increase in processing speeds, but it won’t be powering your laptop anytime soon; it’s likely to take some years for the technology to be refined for commercial use.

The development is the work of a joint project between IBM Research, GlobalFoundries and the State University of New York, and has so far cost $3 billion (£1.9 billion) in research. The technology used in the microchip should usher in a range of superfast, compact processors, and continue Moore’s law for the near future.

“It’s a major step,” said Mukesh Khare, vice president of semiconductor technology at IBM Research. “We have been working on this technology for more than five years.”

How does it work?

The power and efficiency of a microchip hinge on its manufacturing process. Generally, smaller technology means a chip can draw less power, and hence run faster without overheating. Intel current Core processors use minute, 14nm technology (14 billionths of a metre), and the company plans to shrink to 10nm next year. IBM’s latest test chip slashes the size of the transistors inside the chip to a scale that’s only three times wider than a strand of human DNA.

How are they doing it?

To make the leap to 7nm, IBM and its research partners had to develop new manufacturing methods. The researchers used highly conductive silicon-germanium to carry the charge through the chip’s transistors, rather than regular silicon, and used extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography to inscribe the design – effectively using a very high-frequency laser to etch smaller patterns onto the chip’s surface than had previously been possible.

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