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IBM Announces 7nm Chip Prototype

IBM announced on Wednesday, July 8, 2015, that they built a prototype test processor that will significantly increase computer circuitry power. The chip is currently just a research and development project rather than a finished product. However, the prototype is important because it extends Moore’s Law in that it shows that computing power will continue its steady progress. IBM’s work makes miniaturize chips feasible, enabling devices like smartwatches and perhaps even augmented-reality contact lenses.

The most cutting-edge chips available on the market today are built with circuitry features measuring 14 nanometers. That is 14 billionths of a meter, which is 7,000 times narrower than a human hair or six times wider than a strand of DNA. A 7nm chip will be less than three times the width of a 2.5nm DNA strand, which is obviously very small. IBM is currently working on 10nm technology which will improve the power-performance ratio by 40 or 50 percent over today’s 14nm chips. The 7nm chip design will theoretically improve the power-performance ratio another 50 percent of the 10nm generation.

There has been little said publicly about the 7nm development but IBM Research and its allies have a number of technologies to make its 7nm prototype real. Two technologies that will be utilized are a chemical compound called silicon germanium and an optical etching technology using extreme ultraviolet light. Chipmakers have long fiddled with the chemical composition of chips to increase electrical properties for transistors. By adding a layer of silicon germanium on the 7nm chips allows for transistors to switch on and off faster, increasing data processing speed.

Extreme ultraviolet etching is a fundamental part of chip manufacturing. The process known as photolithography shines light through a complicated arrangement of transparent and opaque areas. The composition of the chip is altered depending on where the light did or did not shine. Different types of material can then be added or removed to manufacture the three-dimensional transistors and interconnection circuitry. Typical photolithography uses an ultraviolet light with a 193nm wavelength. IBM’s Extreme Ultraviolet light has a 13.5nm wavelength that permits much smaller features.

Intel is currently commercializing their 10nm chip and it is due to roll out in 2016 or 2017. However, a document was leaked earlier this week which claims that Intel is facing difficulties at 10nm which may delay its release. In theory, the 7nm from IBM should be available in 2017 or 2018. For now we have to wait and see what the future holds.

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