IBM has pulled ahead of its rival Intel in the race to the microchip of the future with the announcement of the tiniest transistors ever made, but analysts say the competition has just begun.
Using technology developed at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose and at New York laboratories in collaboration with GlobalFoundries and Samsung, the company’s scientists have created a “test” chip with transistors 7 nanometers thick.
In comparison, a strand of DNA is 2.5 nanometers in width and a human hair is 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide.
The announcement means that in all likelihood, Moore’s Law, which calls for the doubling of the number of transistors on a chip every two years, will continue at least through 2018.
The generations of microprocessors are called “nodes,” and current manufacturing is largely at the 14 and 22 nanometer nodes, with a 10 nanometer node in the wings, while researchers try to figure out a path to 7 nanometers.
IBM, headquartered in New York, is essentially declaring that it has found the path. But it will be a while before the chips are manufactured in quantities to power phones, computers and other products.
Santa Clara-based Intel, considered the technological leader of the industry, had no comment. But in earlier interviews, its top technologists have said they are working on a path to a 7-nanometer transistor.
“Intel might have these working in their labs, but they haven’t shown anybody,” said Richard Fichera, a semiconductor analyst with Forrester Research.
Fichera called the IBM breakthrough “a smart use of technology and partnerships.”
“This is no guarantee that this is the best way to make 7 nanometer parts, but it says Intel should realize they have somebody breathing down their neck,” he said.
Semiconductor analyst Pat Moorhead, with Moor Insights and Strategy, said, “This is all as much about marketing as it is technology. But it’s good to see we have some concrete proof that Moore’s Law keeps going and from a company outside of Intel.”
IBM recently sold its chip-manufacturing operations to GlobalFoundries. It developed the test chip with that company, Samsung and New York state. The team is based at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. The research is part of a $3 billion, five-year investment in chip research announced last year.
IBM says it bypassed regular manufacturing techniques to produce the new chip.
The test chip is built on a platform of silicon, but on top is a layer of silicon germanium, a material pioneered by IBM years ago. The layer contains the transistors, which are the tiny switches that direct electrical current.
IBM used a technique called extreme ultraviolet lithography to create the patterns for the chip. To make some of the material involved, IBM used chemicals that the Almaden lab has worked on for decades, said Almaden lab Director Jeff Welser.
“We want to be clear about this – 7 nanometers is really hard,” he added. “Although Moore’s Law is continuing, it is not in the same way it used to. You don’t just keep it going by shrinking.”