When Computers Meet Atomic Physics

According to Moore’s law, the amount of transistors on an integrated circuit should double every two years. This means that as transistors get smaller, more of them can fit on a computer chip, making computer processors faster than before. The exponential growth of transistors has led to unbelievable feats that were never thought possible before, such as the mapping of the human genome, but there has been skepticism at how much longer the rule will last. Intel, the leading industry in the field for decades, was six months late with its previous transistor product.

With current chips being around 14 nanometers (14 billionths of a meter) and the next generation predicted to be at 10 nanometers in 2016, the designs are beginning to test the limits of atomic physics. At 14 nanometers, the product is 7000 times thinner than a strand of hair, and 6 times thicker than a strand of DNA. However, IBM has recently announced that it has produced a computer chip four times as powerful as current top-of-the-line technology, suggesting that for now, Moore’s law will stay intact.

The Cutting Edge

Investing $3 billion into a partnership with other tech giants like Samsung and GlobalFoundries, IBM wants to manufacture the most advanced computer chips in New York. Today, the company announced that it has successfully created working samples of a chip with 7 nanometer transistors by using silicon-germanium instead of pure silicon for the switches. At this size, IBM states that a microprocessor will be able to fit over 20 billion transistors. The release of this news ensures that Moore’s law will stay intact until at least 2018. However, because of the ridiculously small size of the new transistors (less than three times the width of a DNA strand), following years will have to look into new materials and manufacturing techniques to get the job done.

Finding a New Frontier

Moving forward, IBM needs to figure out whether or not its silicon-germanium compound is the best way to go. Extreme ultraviolet (EUV) technology is an option to etch patterns at nearly the accuracy of almost individual atoms, but its practicality is still in question. Even the slightest vibrations obstruct the precision necessary for EUV optics to work, which will force the company to invest in constructing new buildings to isolate equipment from vibrations. Additionally, this delicate process may not be suited for IBM’s goal of high-speed manufacturing, since current work has been conducted in research labs rather than manufacturing plants. IBM has yet to announce a projected date for release, but perhaps this wave of chips will mark the last year before Moore’s law becomes obsolete.



Sources: The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalTimeCNET
Image Sources: ArgotechsESABProtostack

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