IBM makes chips with 'smallest components'

IBM chip lab Image copyright IBM
Image caption So far, the chips using the 7nm components have been made in the lab

IBM has said it has overcome technical hurdles threatening to delay the manufacture of silicon chips with the smallest components so far.

It said it could now make chips with parts 7nm (nanometres) wide - 1/1,000th the size of a red blood cell.

The smallest parts on current chips are about 14nm. One nanometre is equal to one billionth of a metre.

So far, the 7nm chips have been made in the lab. IBM is now working on ways to replicate them in manufacturing plants.

Process control

The breakthrough means Moore's Law - the general rule describing the steady growth of computer power - will continue operating for the next few years.

Moore's Law suggests that computer power should double every couple of years, typically because novel ways are found to make components shrink in size.

The law was named after Gordon Moore - one of the pioneers of silicon chip development.

Chip-makers are currently updating fabrication systems to produce processors with components 10nm wide, which will mean computers become more powerful.

There had been fears that the jump from 10nm to 7nm would present so many technical problems that the pace of change would slow.

In an interview with the New York Times, IBM said it had overcome the problems by using channels made of silicon and germanium on key parts of processors, so the tiniest elements of the chips worked well.

And it had found a way to use very narrow wavelengths of ultraviolet light to etch components and stack transistors closer together so they did not interfere with each other.

In a blogpost describing its work, IBM said it had taken "dozens of design and tooling improvements" to the manufacturing processes to make the chips.

IBM and its partners, which include Samsung, are planning to spend about $3bn (£1.95bn) building a fabrication plant in New York state to produce chips that use the tiny components.

Electronics companies including Broadcom, Qualcomm and AMD have already signed up to take chips it produces.

IBM said chips made using 7nm components should start appearing in computers and other gadgets in 2017-18.

An entire chip made using 7nm components would have about 20 billion transistors, said IBM.

By contrast, Intel's Core i7 duo core Broadwell-U chip that uses the 14nm process has about 1.9 billion transistors.

Rival Intel has also talked about the research it is doing to make and manufacture components 7nm wide - but, so far, it has remained coy about how fruitful that work has been.

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