On Monday, IBM Research Alliance announced it had developed a breakthrough in semiconductors technology: silicon nanosheet transistors that could potentially be the key to 5-nanometer chips. It means future chips could be smaller, more powerful, and more efficient.
The research and development arm of the Big Blue worked in partnership with Samsung and GLOBALFOUNDRIES to develop the innovative solution. IBM touts the findings as a victory for the industry, but there’s a long way to go before mass production.
Other chipmakers like Intel and Qualcomm might be reluctant to adopt the new technology because it requires changes in the manufacturing process. The payoff, however, could be much greater for everyone than the inconvenience of adapting to the future.
What are nanosheet transistors and how do they work?
Chip architecture is based on transistors, which are essentially switch-like components that allow the chip itself to process computing tasks by “turning” on and off to let electricity flow through them.
Currently, chip standards stand at 14 nm and 10 nm. What these numbers dictate, in simple terms, is just the size of these transistors which in turn determines the volume of the processor. 7 nm CPUs will launch in 2018.
Nanosheets are just minuscule silicon arrays of transistors that also rely on FinFET design for scalability at “nano” levels. This paradigm shift departs from old gate-like transistor standards and opts for a flow solution inspired by the fins of fishes. The result is a more efficient and space-effective model.
What is the advantage of using nanosheets?
Using nanosheet transistor design, 5 nm chips can pack as many as 30 billion transistors, which represent roughly a 40 percent performance increase in contrast to current 10 nm models, the smallest ones available right now.
Moreover, the new system allows improvement in many areas. Manufacturers can choose to increase battery life without bumping the processing power. As a result, computers could consume 75% less energy handling the same workload they do today.
Semiconductor companies that adopt this new architecture could enable the industry to make super-capable IoT machines, mobile devices, PCs, and laptops.
The first 5 nm processor will launch in the market during the next decade
Of course, there is always an obstacle. IBM used Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography to produce both the 7 nm units and the new nanosheets on the 5 nm chips. It is not widely used in the industry, and tech giants have been dodging it for several years.
IBM also notes that, unlike advancements and discoveries themselves, the production and implementation of new technologies takes a lot of time. It might be a decade before we see 5 nm processors in the market, but optimistic timeframes place their launch in the early 2020s.