In the race to make all manner of electronics devices smaller yet more powerful, IBM may have made a breakthrough to a smaller future by using the smallest of all technology developed to this point.


IBM scientists say carbon nanotechnology could lead to smaller, faster and more powerful computer chips.

The carbon material also might replace traditional silicon.

Plus, says The New York Times, the “chip-making technology … is likely to ensure that the basic digital switch at the heart of modern microchips will continue to shrink for more than a decade.”

At some point, physical reductions could reach a limit. But as CIO magazine notes, the IBM development could lead to an extension of the so-called Moore’s Law.

“The march toward ever-smaller transistors has produced chips that use less power and can run faster, but can also be made at lower cost, as more can be crammed onto a single wafer,” CIO reported. “The increasing number of transistors on a given amount of silicon was famously predicted by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, who predicted they would double steadily over time.”

The researchers at IBM Labs in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. reported on Sunday that they were able to place and test more than 10,000 carbon nanotube devices on a single chip.

Significantly, they did so with what they called “mainstream manufacturing processes.”

“Carbon nanotubes, borne out of chemistry, have largely been laboratory curiosities as far as microelectronic applications are concerned. We are attempting the first steps towards a technology by fabricating carbon nanotube transistors within a conventional wafer fabrication infrastructure,” said Supratik Guha, director of Physical Sciences at IBM Research, in announcing the breakthrough.

“The motivation to work on carbon nanotube transistors is that at extremely small nanoscale dimensions, they outperform transistors made from any other material,” Guha added. “However, there are challenges to address such as ultra high purity of the carbon nanotubes and deliberate placement at the nanoscale. We have been making significant strides in both.”

IBM says the advance “helps pave the way for carbon technology as a viable alternative to silicon in future computing.”

Using carbon nanotubes would enable ”further miniaturization of computing components and leading the way for future microelectronics,” IBM added.

The nanotechnology could solve the problem facing chip developers in use of silicon. “Their increasingly small dimensions, now reaching the nanoscale, will prohibit any gains in performance due to the nature of silicon and the laws of physics. Within a few more generations, classical scaling and shrinkage will no longer yield the sizable benefits of lower power, lower cost and higher speed processors that the industry has become accustomed to,” IBM noted.

IBM’s research was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

The report triggered a wave of headlines across the web, such as:

  • IBM moving to replace silicon with carbon nanotubes in computer chips
  • Ready for nanotech brains? IBM’s nanotube breakthrough gets us closer
  • IBM Carbon Nanotech Research Could Lead To Next-Gen Computer Chips

“Carbon nanotubes represent a new class of semiconductor materials whose electrical properties are more attractive than silicon, particularly for building nanoscale transistor devices that are a few tens of atoms across. Electrons in carbon transistors can move easier than in silicon-based devices allowing for quicker transport of data,” IBM said.

“The nanotubes are also ideally shaped for transistors at the atomic scale, an advantage over silicon. These qualities are among the reasons to replace the traditional silicon transistor with carbon – and coupled with new chip design architectures – will allow computing innovation on a miniature scale for the future.

“The approach developed at IBM labs paves the way for circuit fabrication with large numbers of carbon nanotube transistors at predetermined substrate positions. The ability to isolate semiconducting nanotubes and place a high density of carbon devices on a wafer is crucial to assess their suitability for a technology – eventually more than one billion transistors will be needed for future integration into commercial chips. Until now, scientists have been able to place at most a few hundred carbon nanotube devices at a time, not nearly enough to address key issues for commercial applications.”

IBM employs some 10,000 people across North Carolina.

[IBM ARCHIVE: Check out 10 years of IBM stories as reported in WRAL Tech Wire.]