IBM Research creates a groundbreaking 5-nanometer chip

IBM Research scientist Nicolas Loubet holds a wafer of chips with 5nm silicon nanosheet transistors manufactured using an industry-first process that can deliver 40 percent performance enhancement at fixed power or 75 percent power savings at matched per

The new chip which has contains around 30 billion transistors is created by stacking silicon nanosheets.

Moore's law has been one of the cornerstones of modern day computing. This week IBM has resurrected it. Finding a way to squeeze 30 billion transistors into a fingernail-sized chip, IBM has defied prediction by coming up with a practical way to make 5-nanometer processors. The development could lead to smaller, more powerful and more efficient devices - but with 10 nm chips only just hitting the market, and 7 nm due for commercial release in 2019, these 5 nm chips are probably still about four years away.

This same Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography approach used to produce the 7nm test node and its 20 billion transistors was applied to the nanosheet transistor architecture.

This new architecture IBM and its partners have come up with means we should be seeing big gains in computer chips for years to come. The process details will be presented at the 2017 Symposia on VLSI Technology and Circuits conference to be held in Japan, IBM says.

The power savings may also enable batteries in smartphones and other devices to last up to three times longer than they do right now.

IBM claims that chips based on this new design can have 40 percent performance gains over the 10nm chips now in production, at the same level of power.


The new design developed by IBM switches from a vertical fin structure that sends electrons through three gates, to layering silicon nanosheets horizontally in a way that effectively results in a fourth gate, which ultimately results in the ability to squeeze more compute power in the same area.

This new process involves something called a gate-all-around (GAA) transistors, that deploys horizontal layers of stacked silicon to enable a fourth gate on the transistors that are placed on the chip.

IBM also said the improvement enables a significant boost to meeting the future demands of artificial intelligence (AI) systems, virtual reality and mobile devices.

The most-advanced semiconductor chips at the moment use a FinFET process technology with circuitry that is 10 nm in width. If you wanted to optimize for power savings, alternatively, you could create chips with the same performance level as todays 10nm units, but with a 75 percent reduction in how much power is needed to achieve that performance. Therefore, while FinFET chips can scale to 5 nanometers, simply reducing the amount of space between fins does not provide increased current flow for additional performance.

As to why developers are making thinner and thinner chips, in the first place, the answer has to do with speed and size.

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