Increasingly, modern life depends on how skillfully we shuttle electrons through the nanoscale mazes etched on computer chips. These processors arent just for laptops anymoretheyre used in your car, your thermostat, your refrigerator and microwave.
And the pandemic has revealed just how deeply our dependence runs.
A global shortage of computer chips, brought on by vacillating demand and supply chain issues, is currently rippling through device-makers, of course, but also makers of cars, vacuum cleaners, and stove vents.
Clearly, were hooked.
So, perhaps its no surprise that when companies announce better, faster, more efficient computer chips, the world takes notice. This week, it was IBMs turn to make headlines.
The company, once synonymous with all things computing, announced that its demonstrated a 2-nanometer (nm) chipmaking process for the first time.
In a press release, IBM said the new process would yield some 50 billion transistors on a chip the size of a fingernail. It would also bring chips that are 75 percent more efficient or 45 percent faster than todays 7-nm chips.
On its face, it would seem IBM just leapt far ahead in the race for top chip tech. Intels latest chips use a 10-nm process and TSMCs use a 7-nm process. And the company has made some very cool and notable progress here. But comparing chips is complicated. So, its worth dissecting the news a bit more to better understand the bigger picture.
Progress in computer chips has long been measured in nanometer-sized steps. Each step down yields ever more componentsmost notably, transistorspacked into the same area. And there was a time, in decades past, when the nanometer nomenclature actually did match the size of certain chip elements. But that time has passed. As chip technology advanced, the measurements of chip components decoupled from each generations naming convention.
By the time chips made the last big leap to FinFETa 3D transistor design shaped like a fina little over a decade ago, the industrys node number was virtually meaningless. It didnt relate to any dimension on the chip. Theres currently a debate over what new number, or combination of numbers, better reflects progress. And although this too is proving rather complicated, one spec experts propose is transistor density per square millimeter.
To see how the old naming convention is confusing, compare Intels 10-nm chips with TSMCs 7-nm chips. The two actually have roughly equivalent transistor densities, with Intels 100 million transistors per square millimeter actually edging out TSMCs 91 million per square millimeter. (Go here for a handy table comparing process size and transistor density of chips.)
IBM didnt announce transistor density explicitly. But after reaching out to clarify exactly what sized fingernail they were referencingrepresentatives of the company said about 150 square millimetersthe publication AnandTech calculated IBMs new process would yield some 333 million transistors per square millimeter. Which is, indeed, beyond anything in production. That said, a 3-nm chip TSMC is making for Apple could boast almost 300 million transistors per square millimeter and enter production as soon as next year.
The more significant, though less-heralded news here, is the design of the transistors themselves. IBMs new technologycalled nanosheet or gate-all-around transistorsis the long-awaited successor to todays FinFET transistors. The company has been working on the the tech since 2017.
FinFET transistors consist of a fin-shaped channel surrounded on three sides by a gate that controls the flow of electrons. But IBMs nanosheet (or gate-all-around) transistors have a layered channel instead. The layers are stacked on top of each other and, like three pigs-in-a-blanket, are surrounded by the gate on all sides. This last bit is the most critical piece. Gate-all-around transistors provide better control of current through the channel, prevent leakage, and boost efficiency.
Its a tremendously exciting technology, Jess del Alamo, a professor at MIT who specializes in novel transistor technologies, told Wired. Its a completely new design that pushes forward the roadmap for the future. And while IBM may be the first to show the tech off at this level, they likely wont be the last. Samsung and TSMC will probably follow suit.
Its too early to make serious performance comparisons between todays production chips and future chips using IBMs new transistors, but its safe to say theyll offer notable improvements. Dan Hutcheson, CEO of analytics company VLSI Research, told Wired IBMs estimated performance improvements actually seemed conservative and called the work a milestone for the industry.
When might you buy a device with one of these chips? Likely not for a bit.
Though IBM still designs chips, it sold its chipmaking business in 2014. This new tech hails from its research facility in Albany, New York and is a demonstrator, not a production-ready chip. In the coming years, IBM will complete the process, at which point it may make its way into production chips by way of licensing deals with partners like Intel and Samsung.
The industry isnt likely to stand still in the interim. Theres a renaissance of sorts in the chip industry right now.
Its no longer only about spending billions to wring a few more drops from traditional chips. Theres energy and innovation reinvigorating the sector and bringing about a Cambrian explosion of bizarre designs for special purposes, like AI. And much of it is taking place outside big companies.
For the first time in years, venture capital is pouring into startupsmore than $12 billion, in fact, went to over 400 chip companies in 2020 alone.
So, even amid this years chip drought, it seems the monsoon is gathering.
Image Credit: IBM
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