Moore’s Law is one of those wonders of modern life that we all take for granted, like grocery stores and anesthesia dentistry.

For 50 years now, computer processors have been doubling their performance. per dollar per square centimeter every 1-2 years. This exponential trend has taken us from 500 flops of ENIAC (floating point operations per second) to 54 petaflops for the most powerful supercomputer to date, Tianhe-2 . This is about ten trillion times more than in a century. It’s incredible for everyone.

This achievement happened so reliably, for so long, that it became a mundane truth in computing.

We take it for granted.

That’s why it’s so scary that things might stop in the near future. A number of fundamental physical limitations are converging to stop the development of traditional silicon computer chips. Although there are theoretical computer technologies which may solve some of these problems, the fact remains that progress is currently slowing down. The days of exponentially improving computers may be coming to an end.

But not quite yet.

A new breakthrough from IBM shows that Moore’s Law still has legs. A research team led by the company has demonstrated a prototype processor with transistor components just 7 nanometers wide. That’s half the size (and four times the performance) of current 14nm technology, pushing the demise of Moore’s Law until at least 2018.

So how was this breakthrough achieved? And when can we expect to see this technology in real devices?

Old Atoms, New Tricks

The new prototype is not a production chip, but it was made using commercially scalable technologies that could be on the market in the next few years (there is a rumor that IBM would like this chip to be introduced in 2017-2018. A prototype is a product IBM/SUNY, an IMB research lab that collaborated with the State University of New York A number of companies and research groups collaborated on this project, including SAMSUNG and Global Foundries, a company that IBM is paying an estimated $1.3 billion to take over from its unprofitable chip manufacturing wing.

In essence, the IBM research team did two key improvements, that made this possible: the development of a better material and the development of a better etching process. Each of them overcomes a serious barrier to the development of more dense processors. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

best material

One of the barriers to smaller transistors is simply the reduction in the number of atoms. The 7nm transistor has components that are only about 35 silicon atoms in size. For current to flow, electrons must physically jump from the orbit of one atom to the orbit of another. In a pure silicon wafer, as is traditionally used, it is difficult or impossible to obtain sufficient current to pass through such a small number of atoms.


To solve this problem, IBM had to abandon pure silicon in favor of using an alloy of silicon and germanium. This has a key advantage: it increases the so-called «electron mobility» — the ability of electrons to pass through the material. Silicon is starting to perform poorly at 10nm, which is one of the reasons 10nm processor efforts have stalled. The addition of germanium jumps over this barrier.

More accurate etching

There is also the question of how you actually form such tiny objects. How computer processors work are produced using extremely powerful lasers as well as various optics and stencils to carve tiny features. The limitation here is the wavelength of the light, which puts a limit on how well we can etch elements.

For a long time, chip production has stabilized with the use of argon-fluoride laser with a wavelength of 193 nm. You may notice that this is slightly larger than the 14nm features we engraved. Fortunately, wavelength is not a hard limit on resolution. You can use interference and other techniques to achieve greater accuracy. However, the chip makers have run out of their smart ideas and now a major change is needed.


IBM has adopted this idea with an EUV (Extreme Ultra Violet) light source with a wavelength of just 13.5 nm. This, using tricks similar to those we used with argon fluoride, should give us only a couple of nanometers of etch resolution with more detail.

Unfortunately, it also requires throwing away much of what we know about chip manufacturing, as well as much of the technology infrastructure designed for it, which is one of the reasons the technology has taken so long to create its own.

This technology opens the door for continued development of Moore’s Law up to the quantum limit — the point at which the quantum uncertainty around the position of an electron is greater than the transistor itself, leading to random behavior of the processor elements. From there, a really new technology it will be necessary to push the calculations further.

The next five years of chip manufacturing

intel processors

Intel is still struggling to produce a viable 10nm processor. It is possible that the IBM coalition can beat them. If this happens, it will mean that the balance of power in the semiconductor industry has finally shifted with Intel.

The future of Moore’s Law is uncertain. However, the story ends, it will be stormy. Kingdoms will be won and lost. It will be interesting to see who will be at the top when the dust settles. And in the short term, it’s good to know that the unstoppable march of human progress won’t stop for at least a few more years.

Are you happy with faster chips? Worried about the end of Moore’s Law? Let us know about it in the comments!

Image credits: Computer microchip by Shutterstock, «Silicon Krod», «Argon ion laser», «Intel logo» by Wikimedia

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