IBM said on Thursday that it had made working versions of
ultradense computer chips, with roughly four times the capacity of today’s most
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
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.
Each generation brings roughly a 50 percent reduction in the area required by a
given amount of circuitry. IBM’s new chips, though still in a research phase,
suggest that semiconductor technology will continue to shrink at least through
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
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.
Even though IBM has shed much of its computer and semiconductor manufacturing
capacity, the announcement indicates that the company remains interested in
supporting the nation’s high technology manufacturing base.
“This puts IBM in the position of being a gentleman gambler as opposed to being
a horse owner,” said Richard Doherty, president of Envisioneering, a Seaford,
N.Y., consulting firm, referring to the fact that IBM’s chip manufacturing
facility was acquired by GlobalFoundries effective last week.
“They still want to be in the race,” he added.
IBM now licenses the technology it is developing to a number of manufacturers
and GlobalFoundries, owned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, to make chips for
companies including Broadcom, Qualcomm and Advanced Micro Devices.
The semiconductor industry must now decide if IBM’s bet on silicon-germanium is
the best way forward.
It must also grapple with the shift to using extreme ultraviolet, or EUV, light
to etch patterns on chips at a resolution that approaches the diameter of
individual atoms. In the past, Intel said it could see its way toward
seven-nanometer manufacturing. But it has not said when that generation of chip
making might arrive.
IBM also declined to speculate on when it might begin commercial manufacturing
of this technology generation. This year, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing
Company said that it planned to begin pilot product of seven-nanometer chips in
2017. Unlike IBM, however, it has not demonstrated working chips to meet that
It is uncertain whether the longer exposure times required by the new generation
of EUV photolithographic stepper machines would make high-speed manufacturing
operations impossible. Even the slightest vibration can undermine the precision
of the optics necessary to etch lines of molecular thicknesses, and the
semiconductor industry has been forced to build specialized stabilized buildings
to try to isolate equipment from vibration.
An IBM official said that the consortium now sees a way to use EUV light in
commercial manufacturing operations.
“EUV is another game changer,” said Mukesh Khare, vice president for
semiconductor research at IBM. To date, he noted, the demonstration has taken
place in a research lab, not in a manufacturing plant. Ultimately the goal is to
create circuits that have been reduced in area by another 50 percent over the
industry’s 10-nanometer technology generation scheduled to be introduced next
A version of this article appears in print on July 9, 2015,
on page B2 of the
New York edition with the headline: IBM Discloses Working Version of a Much
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- People will increasingly interact with computers using
speech or touch screens rather than keyboards, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill
''It's one of the big bets we're making,'' he said during the final stop of a
farewell tour before he withdraws from the company's daily operations in July.
In five years, Microsoft expects more Internet searches to be done through
speech than through typing on a keyboard, Gates told about 1,200 students and
faculty members Thursday at Carnegie Mellon University.
Gates also said the software that is proliferating in various branches of
science, including biology and astronomy must become even more advanced.
''They're dealing with so much information that ... the need for machine
learning to figure out what's going on with that data is absolutely essential,''
Microsoft is trying to establish ties not only with university computer science
departments but also with reseachers in other scientific areas ''to help us
understand where new inventions are necessary,'' Gates said.
Gates plans to retire as Microsoft's chief software architect in July and focus