IBM Takes Wraps Off 7nm Processor Tech

Company wants to extend useful life of existing application architectures for years to come

Michael Vizard

July 9, 2015

2 Min Read
IBM Takes Wraps Off 7nm Processor Tech
The reflection of Roland Germann, manager, Nanotechnology Center Operations at IBM Research – Zurich in the clean room with a silicon wafer. (Photo by Michael Lowry, courtesy of IBM)

In collaboration with GlobalFoundries, Samsung, and SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, IBM Research revealed it has developed the industry’s first 7-nanometer node test chips with functioning transistors.

While semiconductors based on 7nm technology are still a long time off from being manufactured, the breakthrough shows that many technical advances can still be wrung out of existing semiconductor technology.

While the most advanced servers available today are based on 14nm and 22nm processors, combining new materials with traditional silicon will make it possible to extend existing application architecture for decades to come, Mukesh Khare, vice president of semiconductor technology for IBM Research, said.

The fundamental challenge researchers face is conventional processes to developing smaller chips have degraded performance and negated the expected benefits, such as lower cost and lower power requirements. Khare said that by employing, for example, Silicon Germanium (SiGe) channel transistors and Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography integration at multiple levels, researchers have been able to create a 7nm processor that moves beyond what has been perceived to be a 10nm barrier.

In moving to 7nm, IBM claims to have achieved close to a 50-percent improvement in area scaling over 10nm technology, while still delivering at least a 50-percent power-performance improvement.

“We’re making use of new innovative materials to truly scale,” said Khare. “We’re also employing new lithography techniques.”

Specific IBM contributions to the project include the invention or first implementation of a single-cell DRAM, the Dennard Scaling Laws, chemically amplified photoresists, copper interconnect wiring, Silicon on Insulator, strained engineering, multicore microprocessors, immersion lithography, high-speed SiGe, High-k gate dielectrics, embedded DRAM, 3D chip stacking, and Air gap insulators.

GlobalFoundries took over IBM’s semiconductor business last year.

If and when IBM brings 7nm semiconductors to market, Khare said, they will most likely manifest themselves in mainframes before being employed in other IT infrastructure platforms.

The research itself is being conducted at a $500 million SUNY Poly’s NanoTech Complex in Albany, New York, as part of a previously announced $3 billion five-year investment in semiconductor research and development.

In the meantime, there are a lot of other processors technologies under development that promise to usurp traditional approaches all together. But in the case of IBM at least, most of the current research and development effort appears to be focused on extending existing architectures.

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