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IBM’s 50-billion transistor chip is tiny—and a huge breakthrough

Samsung and Intel will fabricate new chips using IBM’s super-dense design.

IBM’s 50-billion transistor chip is tiny—and a huge breakthrough
A 2-nanometer wafer fabricated at IBM Research’s Albany facility. [Photo: courtesy of IBM]
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IBM is heralding the return of Moore’s Law—the idea that the power of microchips will double every two years—with a new chip design that fits 50 billion transistors on a piece of silicon the size of your thumbnail.

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The new chip is the result of a mind-bogglingly tiny 2-nanometer technology, where each transistor is less than 2 nanometers wide, or about the width of two strands of human DNA. It was designed at IBM’s research lab in Albany, New York. (By way of comparison, Apple’s iPhone 12 and Samsung’s Galaxy S21 phones use 5-nanometer chips.)

With greater transistor density, each chip has more processing power and will require less power to run. This will have big implications for the tech product makers that use the chips. IBM says the new chips could make everything from phones to smart appliances to self-driving cars run more efficiently.

Two-nanometer technology as seen using transmission electron microscopy. Two nanometers is smaller than the width of a single strand of human DNA. [Image: courtesy of IBM]
“IBM’s 2-nanometer announcement is important because IBM provides technology to both Intel and Samsung, the two largest semiconductor companies on the planet,” says analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights and Strategy. “When you combine this with what [Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company] TSMC is working on with 2 nanometer, it appears Moore’s Law continues.”

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Intel cofounder Gordon Moore proclaimed in 1965 that the number of transistors on a microprocessor will double roughly every two years, meaning that processors would grow twice as fast every two years. This held true for the next 50 years, but in the past decade the maxim failed to match reality.

In 2014, recognizing that Moore’s Law was coming to an end, IBM announced a new program called “7nm and Beyond,” in which it committed to spend $3 billion over the next five years to bring new techniques and materials to bear to generate ever-smaller silicon dimensions.

Well before the 2-nanometer chips are in production, engineers at tech companies will start creating product designs that utilize the additional power and better efficiency, IBM senior VP and research director Dario Gil told me on Thursday.

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The chips will start showing up in real products in late 2024 or 2025, Gil says.

About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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