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IBM Says Its Carbon-Nanotube-Based Chips Can Break Through Limits of Moore’s Law

IBM says Its atomic-thin transistors can blow silicon-based chips away.

IBM Says Its Carbon-Nanotube-Based Chips Can Break Through Limits of Moore’s Law
[Images: courtesy of IBM Research]

IBM’s Research division says it has discovered a way to replace silicon semiconductors with carbon nanotube transistors, an innovation that Big Blue believes will dramatically improve chip performance and get the industry past the limits of Moore’s law.

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In a release about its breakthrough, IBM said its researchers successfully shrunk transistor contacts in a way that didn’t limit the power of carbon nanotube devices. The result, the company said, could be smaller and faster computer chips that significantly surpass what’s possible with today’s silicon semiconductors.

The impetus for the research is the limits of Moore’s law, which has for years governed the ability of the semiconductor industry to double the processing power of chips every 24 months. In recent years, however, it has appeared likely that industry has reached the limits of physics when it comes to doubling the power of silicon chips. That has meant the probable slowing of significant computing performance boosts.

With chips made from carbon nanotubes–consisting of single atomic sheets of carbon in rolled-up tubes–high-performance computers may well be capable of analyzing big data faster, and they could also boost the battery life and power of mobile and connected devices. As well, the advance may enable cloud-based data centers to provide more efficient services, IBM claims.

SEM showing scaling of new CNT contacts

In the past, IBM says, its researchers have shown that carbon nanotube transistors are capable of working as switches at widths of 10,000 times thinner than a human hair, and less than half the size of the most advanced silicon technology. Now, with its latest research, the company argues that it has overcome “the other major hurdle in incorporating carbon nanotubes into semiconductor devices,” according to IBM, “which could result in smaller chips with greater performance and lower power consumption.”

Illustration of scaling new CNT contact

That’s because electrons found in carbon transistors move more efficiently than those that are silicon-based, even as the extremely thin bodies of carbon nanotubes offer more advantages at the atomic scale, IBM says.

All told, the company believes, the new research is jump-starting the move to a post-silicon future, and paying off on $3 billion in chip research and development investment IBM announced in 2014.

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About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications

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