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July 14, 2014

IBM Invests $3 Billion in Next-Gen Chip Design

Tiffany Trader
IBM chip design

The slow-down of Moore’s law has chip makers expanding their efforts beyond the scaling of silicon-based transistors to include the development of alternative materials and computing approaches. Such is the case with IBM, which last week launched a $3 billion research initiative focused on getting to “7 nanometers and beyond.” The five year program comes with a dual mandate to push the limits of silicon-based technology while also building a bridge to a “post-silicon” era.

IBM researchers agree that silicon semiconductors still have some life left in them and should be able to scale from today’s 22 nanometers down to 14 and then 10 nanometers over the next several years. However, the challenges are thus that it will require significant investment and innovation.

“The question is not if we will introduce 7 nanometer technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?” said John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research. “IBM engineers and scientists, along with our partners, are well suited for this challenge and are already working on the materials science and device engineering required to meet the demands of the emerging system requirements for cloud, big data, and cognitive systems. This new investment will ensure that we produce the necessary innovations to meet these challenges.”

A press release from IBM mentioned some 500 patents connected with getting to 7nm silicon and beyond, which the company claimed is twice the number of patents held by its nearest competitor. IBM maintains that these patents and its commitment to R&D will enable it to deliver differentiated computing systems targeting cloud and big data analytics.

IBM points to bandwidth memory, high speed communication and device-level power consumption as some of the primary challenges it is contending with.

Beyond 7-nm feature sizes, many experts predict that silicon-based CMOS will hit a wall, where further advances are no longer economically feasible. IBM is betting on several alternative technologies that could enable it to keep making smaller, faster and more powerful computer chips. These include new materials like carbon nanotubes and graphene as well as computational approaches, such as quantum computing and neurosynaptic computing. IBM researchers are also exploring CMOS-integrated silicon photonics, which use light to transmit data; so-called III-V technologies, which enable higher performance at lower power density; and low power transistors, which combat the problem of power dissipation.

IBM sums up its post-silicon strategy in the following infographic: