RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – We all want faster devices, longer lasting batteries, more power – and IBM may have the answer.

As the world’s economy demands more advanced semiconductors than ever for evertyhing from cellphones to automobiles and a continuing shortage hindering production worldwide, IBM on Thursday unveiled a potentially breakthrough design in chips:

The world’s first 2 nanometer (nm), much smaller in scale that existing 5 nm and 7 nm yet packing more processing power 45% more than 7 nm chips while using 75% less energy, says IBM.

“This 2 nm technology is a foundational advanced logic technology,” Mukesh Khare, vice president of Hybrid Cloud Research at IBM, tells WRAL TechWire.

How much?

Think autonomous vehicles, more cellphone power, faster computers – and much more.

How small?

“2 nm technology [uses]  transmission electron microscopy. 2 nm is smaller than the width of a single strand of human DNA,” IBM notes.

A close-up of a 2 nm wafer fabricated at IBM Research’s Albany facility, with individual chips visible to the naked eye. Photo courtesy of IBM.

Smaller and smaller …

  • IBM is promising:

50 billion transistors on a fingernail-sized chip

  • Which means?

Increasing the number of transistors per chip can make them smaller, faster, more reliable, and more efficient. The 2 nm design demonstrates the advanced scaling of semiconductors using IBM’s nanosheet technology. Its architecture is an industry first. Developed less than four years after IBM announced its milestone 5 nm design, this latest breakthrough will allow the 2 nm chip to fit up to 50 billion transistors on a chip the size of a fingernail.

More transistors on a chip also means processor designers have more options to infuse core-level innovations to improve capabilities for leading edge workloads like AI and cloud computing, as well as new pathways for hardware-enforced security and encryption. IBM is already implementing other innovative core-level enhancements in the latest generations of IBM hardware, like IBM POWER10 and IBM z15.

Source: IBM

“The IBM innovation reflected in this new 2 nm chip is essential to the entire semiconductor and IT industry,” said Darío Gil, Director of IBM Research, in the announcement. “It is the product of IBM’s approach of taking on hard tech challenges and a demonstration of how breakthroughs can result from sustained investments and a collaborative R&D ecosystem approach.”

And the chip will have an impact on the Triangle where IBM and Raleigh-based Red Hat are concentrating on cloud computing.

“We have strong system and software teams in NC. We collaborate with them deeply for our hybrid cloud research,” Khare says.

Highlights, according to IBM:

  • Quadrupling cell phone battery life, only requiring users to charge their devices every four days(ii).
  • Slashing the carbon footprint of data centers, which account for one percent of global energy use(iii). Changing all of their servers to 2 nm-based processors could potentially reduce that number significantly.
  • Drastically speeding up a laptop’s functions, ranging from quicker processing in applications, to assisting in language translation more easily, to faster internet access.
  • Contributing to faster object detection and reaction time in autonomous vehicles like self-driving cars.

Today’s news was a long time in coming as IBM and other chip producers such as Intel have raced to improve chips.

“The fundamental research on this device has been going on for more than a decade,” Khare explains. “Today’s breakthrough for scaling to 2 nm technology is a result of our R&D activity in last three years.”

However, don’t expect an immediate impact on the chip industry and the continuing shortage.

“We expect that the earliest devices based on this 2 nm technology could enter the market around 2024,” Khare points out. “However, this timeline depends on a manufacturer’s roadmap.”

Khare won’t discuss pricing at this point, but he says IBM will “work with our ecosystem partners for manufacturing options.”

Intel recently announced planns to invest several billion dollars in additional manufacturing capability, and President Biden has made acquisiton of chips a national priority as demand continues to grow.

Globally, the Semiconductor Industry Association says worldwide semiconductor sales climbed to $123 billion in the first quarter of 2021, 17.8% more than in 2020 and a 3.6% jump from the previous quarter.

But it’s not just numbers. Customers want better performance.

“Demand for increased chip performance and energy efficiency continues to rise, especially in the era of hybrid cloud, AI [artificial intelligence], and the Internet of Things,” IBM notes. “IBM’s new 2 nm chip technology helps advance the state-of-the-art in the semiconductor industry, addressing this growing demand. It is projected to achieve 45 percent higher performance, or 75 percent lower energy use, than today’s most advanced 7 nm node chips.”

IBMN’s chip research is conducted in New York state. Big Blue has long been a pioneer in chip development, including earlier breakthroughs in 7 nm and 5 nm design.

Read more about the new chip online.