IBM’s New Nano Node Test Chip Is Thinner Than DNA

Originally published in Westchester Magazine 

July 13, 2015

Bigger isn’t always better. Case in point: technology. Everything from our smartphones to computers and now our node test chips are getting smaller and smaller. Wait, you don’t know what node chips are? These fingernail-sized chips, which are referred to by the size of the transistors they can hold, contain billions of transistors that provide the electricity and power to operate our smartphones and spacecraft. The smaller the transistors, the more of them you can fit on a chip, the more powerful the chip becomes.

And they’re getting pretty small.

IBM Research announced last week its newest breakthrough yet: a seven-nanometer-thick node test chip with functioning transistors. It has the potential to hold more than 20 billion transistors; it’s the semiconductor industry’s first node test chip that small. For reference, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. This is seven. Seven! And a strand of DNA is two-and-a-half nanometers in diameter. Again, this is seven!

The current chips in commercial use are typically 22 or 14 nanometers, and there’s a 10-nanometer chip gaining momentum in the industry. It’s too soon to tell when the seven-nanometer chip will hit mass production— according to Ars Technica, no sooner than two years.

Created in partnership with GLOBALFOUNDRIES and Samsung at SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, the seven-nanometer chip is a huge deal for the industry because when things get that tiny, traditional methods and materials for production are no longer feasible—the industry’s current chips use pure silicon as a base, but to get even smaller, IBM transitioned the new chips to operate on the alloy silicon-germanium.

“For business and society to get the most out of tomorrow’s computers and devices, scaling to 7nm and beyond is essential,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research in a press release from Thursday. “That’s why IBM has remained committed to an aggressive basic research agenda that continually pushes the limits of semiconductor technology. Working with our partners, this milestone builds on decades of research that has set the pace for the microelectronics industry, and positions us to advance our leadership for years to come.”

The new seven-nanometer chips come as part of IBM’s ongoing project announced in July 2014 to expand research and “push the limits of chip technology needed to meet the emerging demands of cloud computing and Big Data systems.”

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