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IBM Beats Intel To 7nm Process Thanks To Silicon-Germanium Transistors, EUV Lithography

An IBM-led consortium that also includes Samsung and Global Foundries, managed to create the world's first working version of a 7nm chip, which promises to be twice as dense as the next-generation 10nm chips, and even denser than today's 14nm chips. IBM claimed that this breakthrough should enable the building of chips that have more than 20 billion transistors.

Intel, which has always been the one to move to a smaller process node technology over the past few decades, has struggled to ship 14nm chips on time, and industry experts believe that the transition to smaller silicon transistors will only become harder from now on.

However, IBM and its partners managed to create working samples of chips that are created with 7nm transistors. They achieved this by moving away from pure silicon to Silicon-Germanium alloy for making transistors. The new material has higher electron mobility and makes it possible to have faster switching transistors and lower power requirements. To reach these small geometries, the company used self-aligned quadruple patterning (SAQR) and extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography.

The use of EUV lithography in a manufacturing plant today is almost as innovative as making 7nm SiGe-based transistors. Chip companies have been researching EUV lithography for years, but it seems IBM and its partners will be the first to start using it in production.

Currently, state of the art lithography has a wavelength that is 193nm wide, which makes it quite difficult to design chips with much smaller transistors. The EUV lithography, on the other hand, has a wavelength of only 13.5nm. EUV lithography is likely still much more expensive to use because it must operate for longer periods of time, and it's sensitive to the smallest vibrations when designing the chips. However, IBM must hope it can reduce the cost by the time 7nm chips are ready to be manufactured in a few years.

IBM is expecting to go beyond 7nm by the end of the decade, but it also recognizes that will be a much harder task:

"Scaling to 7nm and below is a terrific challenge, calling for deep physics competencies in processing nano materials affinities and characteristics. IBM is one of a very few companies who has repeatedly demonstrated this level of science and engineering expertise," said Richard Doherty, technology research director, The Envisioneering Group.

The company believes that new materials, such as carbon nanotubes or graphene, will be necessary to go beyond 7nm. The alternative could be to start developing other types of computers, such as quantum, cognitive or neuromorphic computers.

Although IBM seems to be a pioneer in 7nm chips, the company has already given away its foundry business to Global Foundries. However, IBM will license the 7nm 3rd generation FinFET process technology to Global Foundries, and likely Samsung as well, which should help IBM make enough revenue to continue its research into smaller process nodes and other related technologies.

The first 7nm chips from IBM's partners might not arrive at least until 2018. However, with Intel's 10nm process likely slipping into 2017 and further delaying its own 7nm process, it's possible the first 7nm chips to ship on the market won't be from Intel this time around.

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Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.