May 16, 2020

IBM Pushes the Limits of Silicon Technology in Nine Key Areas of Innovation

chip technology
silicon technology
Cloud Computing
5 min
IBM's data centres have long been some of the most innovative in the world
Following the news that IBM has invested $3 billion into two research programmes to meet emerging demands of cloud computing and big data systems, the c...

Following the news that IBM has invested $3 billion into two research programmes to meet emerging demands of cloud computing and big data systems, the company has highlighted nine key areas in which the stage development initiative will be targeted towards.

The idea is to push the limits of chip technology to ‘7 nanometres and below’ and to create a post-silicon future for manufacturers, epitomised by the following key areas of development currently being undertaken by IBM:


7 nanometer technology and beyond

IBM Researchers predict scaling down to 7 nanometres and perhaps below, by the end of the decade, will require significant investment and innovation in semiconductor architectures as well as invention of new tools and techniques for manufacturing. 

"The question is not if we will introduce 7 nanometre technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?" said John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research. "IBM engineers and scientists, along with our partners, are well suited for this challenge and are already working on the materials science and device engineering required to meet the demands of the emerging system requirements for cloud, big data, and cognitive systems.

“This new investment will ensure that we produce the necessary innovations to meet these challenges."

Bridge to a “Post-Silicon” Era

Silicon transistors, tiny switches that carry information on a chip, have been made smaller year after year, but they are approaching a point of physical limitation.

Within a few more generations, classical scaling and shrinkage will no longer yield the sizable benefits of lower power, lower cost and higher speed processors that the industry has become accustomed to. 

There is an urgent need for new materials and circuit architecture designs compatible with this engineering process as the technology industry nears physical scalability limits of the silicon transistor.  

Beyond 7 nanometres, the challenges dramatically increase, requiring a new kind of material to power systems of the future, and new computing platforms to solve problems that are unsolvable or difficult to solve today.

Potential alternatives include new materials such as carbon nanotubes, and non-traditional computational approaches such as neuromorphic computing, cognitive computing, machine learning techniques, and the science behind quantum computing.

IBM holds over 500 patents for technologies that will drive advancements at 7 nanometres and beyond silicon. These continued investments will accelerate the invention and introduction into product development for IBM's highly differentiated computing systems for cloud, and big data analytics.

Quantum Computing

IBM is a world leader in superconducting qubit-based quantum computing science, which enables computers to filter through millions of pieces of information at once, and is a pioneer in the field of experimental and theoretical quantum information, fields that are still in the category of fundamental science.

The research team recently demonstrated the first experimental realisation of parity check with three superconducting qubits, an essential building block for one type of quantum computer.

Neurosynaptic Computing

Bringing together nanoscienceneuroscience, and supercomputing, IBM and university partners have developed an end-to-end ecosystem including a non-von Neumann architecture, a new programming language, as well as applications.

This novel technology allows for computing systems that emulate the brain's computing efficiency, size and power usage with the goal to build a neurosynaptic system with ten billion neurons and a hundred trillion synapses, all while consuming only one kilowatt of power and occupying less than two litres of volume.

Silicon Photonics

CMOS integrated silicon photonics is a technology that integrates functions for optical communications on a silicon chip, and the IBM team has recently designed and fabricated the world's first monolithic silicon photonics based transceiver with wavelength division multiplexing, which uses light to transmit data between different computer components at high data rates, low costs and with optimum efficiency.  

Silicon nanophotonics technology provides answers to Big Data challenges by seamlessly connecting various parts of large systems, and moving terabytes of data via pulses of light through optical fibers. 

III-V technologies

IBM researchers have demonstrated the world’s highest transconductance on a self-aligned III-V channel metal-oxide semiconductor (MOS) field-effect transistors (FETs) device structure that is compatible with CMOS scaling.

These materials and structural innovation are expected to pave path for technology scaling at 7 nanometres and beyond.  With more than an order of magnitude higher electron mobility than silicon, integrating III-V materials into CMOS enables higher performance at lower power density, allowing for an extension to power/performance scaling to meet the demands of cloud computing and big data systems.

Carbon Nanotubes

IBM also has demonstrated the capability for purifying carbon nanotubes to 99.99 percent, the highest (verified) purities demonstrated to date, and transistors at 10 nm channel length that show no degradation due to scaling, currently unmatched by any other material system to date.

Carbon nanotubes are single atomic sheets of carbon rolled up into a tube. The carbon nanotubes form the core of a transistor device that will work in a fashion similar to the current silicon transistor, but will be better performing. They could be used to replace the transistors in chips that power data-crunching servers, high performing computers and ultra-fast smartphones. 


Graphene is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and it is also remarkably strong and flexible and its characteristics offer the possibility to build faster switching transistors than are possible with conventional semiconductors, particularly for applications in the handheld wireless communications business where it will be a more efficient switch than those currently used. 

In 2013, IBM demonstrated the world's first graphene based integrated circuit receiver front end for wireless communications. The circuit consisted of a 2-stage amplifier and a down converter operating at 4.3 GHz.

Next Generation Low Power Transistors

In addition to new materials like CNTs, new architectures and innovative device concepts are required to boost future system performance. Power dissipation is a fundamental challenge for nanoelectronic circuits with today’s transistor still losing energy in its ‘off’ state.  

A potential alternative to today’s power hungry silicon field effect transistors are so-called steep slope devices, operating at much lower voltage and thus dissipating significantly less power.

IBM scientists are researching tunnel field effect transistors (TFETs) to potentially achieve a 100-fold power reduction over complementary CMOS transistors, so integrating TFETs with CMOS technology could improve low-power integrated circuits.

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Jun 8, 2021

IMF: Variants Can Still Hurt Manufacturing Recovery

Elise Leise
3 min
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) claims that while markets are rising and manufacturing is coming back, it’ll push for global immunisation

After a year of on-and-off manufacturing in the US, UK, and the eurozone, demand for goods surged early last week. Factories set growth records in April and May, suppliers started to recover, and US crude hit its highest price point since pre-COVID. As vaccination efforts immunise much of the US and UK populations, manufacturers are now able to fully ramp up their supply chains. In fact, GDP growth could approach double-digits by 2022

Now, the ISM productivity measure has surpassed the 50-point mark that separates industry expansion from contraction. Since U.S. president Biden passed his US$1.9tn stimulus package and the UK purchasing managers index (PMI) increased to 65.6, both sides of the Atlantic are facing a much-welcomed manufacturing recovery. 

Lingering Concerns Over COVID

Even as Spain, France, Italy, and Germany race to catch up, and mining companies pushed the FTSE 100 index of list shares to a monthly high of 7,129, some say that UK and US markets still suffer from a lack of confidence in raw material supplies. Yes, the Dow Jones has made up its 19,173-point crash of March 2020, and MSCI’s global stock index is at an all-time high. 

Yet manufacturers around the world realise that these wins will be short-lived until pandemic supply chain bottlenecks are solved. If we keep the status quo, consumers will pay the price. In April, inflation in Germany reached 2.4%, and across the EU’s 19 member countries, overall prices have increased at an unusual pace. Some ask: Is this true recovery? 

IMF: Current Boom Could Falter

Even as Elon Musk tweeted about chip shortages forcing Tesla to raise its prices, UK mining demand skyrocketed; housing markets lifted; and the pound sterling gained value. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), however, cautioned that manufacturing recovery won’t last long if COVID mutates into forms our vaccinations can’t touch. Kristalina Georgieva, Washington’s IMF director, noted that fewer than 1% of African citizens have been vaccinated: “Worldwide access to vaccines offers the best hope for stopping the coronavirus pandemic, saving lives, and securing a broad-based economic recovery”. 

Across the globe, manufacturing companies are keeping a watchful eye on new developments in the spread of COVID. Though US FDA officials don’t think we’ll have to “start at square one” with new vaccines, the March 2021 World Economic Outlook states that “high uncertainty” surrounds the projected 6% global growth. Continued manufacturing success will in large part depend on “the path of the pandemic, the effectiveness of policy support, and the evolution of financial conditions”. 

Mathias Cormann, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) concurred—without global immunisation, the estimated economic boom expected by 2025 could go kaput. “We need to...pursue an all-out effort to reach the entire world population”, Australia’s finance minister added. US$50bn to end COVID across the world, they imply, is a small investment to restart our economies.

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