An IBM Breakthrough Ensures Silicon Will Keep Shrinking – Brian Barrett June 5, 2017


IBM scientists at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering’s NanoTech Complex in Albany, NY prepare test wafers with 5nm silicon nanosheet transistors, loaded into the front opening unified pod, or FOUPs, to test an industry-first process of building 5nm transistors using silicon nanosheets.Connie Zhou

The limits of silicon have not been reached quite yet.

Today, an IBM-led group of researchers have detailed a breakthrough transistor design, one that will enable processors to continue their Moore’s Law march toward smaller, more affordable iterations. Better still? They achieved it not with carbon nanotubes or some other theoretical solution, but with an inventive new process that actually works, and should scale up to the demands of mass manufacturing within several years.

That should also, conveniently enough, be just in time to power the self-driving cars, on-board artificial intelligence, and 5G sensors that comprise the ambitions of nearly every major tech player today—which was no sure thing.

5nm Or Bust

For decades, the semiconductor industry has obsessed over smallness, and for good reason. The more transistors you can squeeze into a chip, the more speed and power efficiency gains you reap, at lower cost. The famed Moore’s Law is simply the observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, in 1965, that the number of transistors had doubled every year. In 1975, Moore revised that estimate to every two years. While the industry has fallen off of that pace, it still regularly finds ways to shrink.

Doing so has required no shortage of inventiveness. The last major breakthrough came in 2009, when researchers detailed a new type of transistor design called FinFET. The first manufacturing of a FinFET transistor design in 2012 gave the industry a much-needed boost, enabling processors made on a 22-nanometer process. FinFET was a revolutionary step in its own right, and the first major shift in transistor structure in decades. Its key insight was to use a 3-D structure to control electric current, rather than the 2-D “planar” system of years past.

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