ALBANY Four years ago, IBM surprised the semiconductor industry by unveiling the world's first 5 nanometer computer chip developed at its clean room lab at Albany Nanotech on Fuller Road, the most advanced chip technology ever developed at the time.
On Thursday, IBM is making public yet another major breakthrough that demonstrates it remains at the vanguard of computer chip invention the creation of the first working 2nm chip with 50 billion transistors crammed onto a silicon chip the size of a fingernail.
And this cutting-edge device was made right here in our backyard.
It's another celebrated milestone not only for New York-based IBM but also for the Capital Region and its reputation as a premier hub for computer chip research and manufacturing.
"This is the world's first test chip with 2 nanometer technology," Mukesh Khare, vice president of Hybrid Cloud Research at IBM told journalists Wednesday from his office at Albany Nanotech. "It's very exciting. And it was made right here in Albany where the breakthrough took place."
The timing couldn't be more promising for New York state, which is currently in the running to attract not only a second computer chip factory at GlobalFoundries' Fab 8 campus in Saratoga County but potentially two more factories, or fabs, being planned by Intel and Samsung, both of which partner with IBM on chip research in Albany.
IBM, with its headquarters in Westchester County, has been the cornerstone of Albany Nanotech, which is home to SUNY Polytechnic Institute, for two decades.
And New York state has made sure that IBM has felt at home to do its most important semiconductor work here, providing the company with hundreds of millions of dollars in financial support over that period to provide IBM and its research partners with the most advanced chip manufacturing equipment and clean room facilities available anywhere in the world.
The IBM innovation reflected in this new 2nm chip is essential to the entire semiconductor and IT industry, said Daro Gil, director of IBM Research. It is the product of IBMs approach of taking on hard tech challenges and a demonstration of how breakthroughs can result from sustained investments and a collaborative research and development ecosystem approach.
So what exactly is so special about a 2nm chip? First, the chip itself is not 2 nanometers wide, which would make it invisible to the naked eye and smaller than a single strand of DNA.
Instead, the 2 nanometers refers to an industry milestone, or node, for shrinking certain features that has historically correlated to the size of the gate of the transistors on chips that control the flow of electrons and the movement of instructions around the device.
Years ago, the nodes no longer reflected the true gate size and became more of a marketing description. For instance, this new 2nm chip has a gate size of 12nm, although IBM says some of the other features are as small as 2nm.
Either way, as the chip nodes continue to get smaller, the chip architecture also gets smaller, allowing IBM and others to cram more and more transistors on the chips, driving down the cost to make them more powerful and more energy efficient.
For instance, IBM's 2nm chip has 20 million more transistors than the 5nm chip it made in 2017, leading to a nearly 50 percent increase in performance over chips used in most of the latest mobile phones and computers in use today which use 7nm chips. (Apple's latest iPhone uses 5nm chips made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which is also close to unveiling its own 2nm chips.)
IBM doesn't make its own chips anymore after selling off its two chip fabs located in Dutchess County and Vermont to GlobalFoundries, which announced last week it has moved its corporate headquarters from Silicon Valley to its Fab 8 campus in the town of Malta where it employs 3,000 people.
But GlobalFoundries only makes chips down to the 14nm node, which represents the lion's share of chips made today for all but the most high-end electronic devices like the iPhone.
Instead, IBM contracts out the manufacturing of its chips for IBM servers to Samsung, which partners with IBM at Albany Nanotech. Intel recently announced it would join IBM in Albany as well.
The hope is that either Intel or Samsung or perhaps both might potentially locate chip manufacturing facilities in the Capital Region or somewhere else in upstate New York to be close to IBM's research operations, just as GlobalFoundries did a decade ago when it was doing all of its research with IBM. GlobalFoundries has since cut back drastically on research spending after deciding it could make 14nm chips in Malta for its customers for the foreseeable future.
GlobalFoundries as well as Samsung and Intel are all looking at possibly building fabs in New York after the Biden administration, urged on by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, has proposed spending $50 billion to provide incentives to chip makers to expand their domestic manufacturing and chip research operations to ensure that the U.S. keeps pace with China in chip making.
IBM and Albany Nanotech, which is operated by a quasi-state entity called NY-CREATES, are planning on trying to land some of that $50 billion in funding to establish a new national chip research lab in Albany that would only further bolster the Capital Region's reputation in the industry as the best place in the country to develop and make chips.
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