UPDATED 06:00 EST / MAY 06 2021


IBM Research says it has created the world’s first two-nanometer chip

IBM Corp.’s research division today announced what it says is a key breakthrough in chip design, creating the world’s first semiconductor based on two-nanometer “nanosheet” technology.

The company said its new two-nanometer chip blueprint will serve as the foundation of its future technology offerings, including its IBM Power Systems and IBM Z platforms. It’s also aimed at helping accelerate advancements in areas such as artificial intelligence, 5G and 6G networks, autonomous systems, quantum computing and even space exploration.

The most advanced computer chips developed so far are based on a five-nanometer process, while the majority of chips in use today are still based on a seven-nanometer process. The term “nanometer” is used to describe how many transistors can be squeezed onto a single chip. Nanometers define the distance between transistors and other components in computer processors, so the smaller the number is, the more that can be placed within the same area.

That allows for faster and more efficient processor designs. Smaller transistors also use less energy, which translates to longer battery lives and lower heat dissipation, which in turn means the chips run cooler.

IBM said that with its two-nanometer process, it can squeeze as many as 50 billion transistors onto a chip the size of a fingernail. That enables the company to boost performance by 45% using the same amount of power, or use 75% less energy while maintaining the same performance level as today’s seven-nanometer chips.

IBM Research Senior Vice President and Director Dario Gil said the new chip design would help society address major global challenges ranging from climate change and sustainability to food scarcity.

“It is the product of a collaborative approach to innovation that shows how quickly breakthroughs can result from deep collaboration and shared investment,” Gil said. “As governments explore ways to further push the envelope on chip technology, the ecosystem that delivered the world’s first two-nanometer chip provides a powerful example to follow.”

IBM said that replacing existing chips with these processors would lead to a drastic reduction in the energy costs and carbon footprint of the world’s data centers. It noted that data centers account for 1% of global energy use, but said the new chips have the potential to reduce that number significantly.

Consumers would see the difference too, IBM said. Using two-nanometer chips, it should be possible to quadruple the battery life of the average smartphone, so people would only need to charge their device once every four days, IBM claimed. The company said the chips also have the potential to significantly improve the capable of AI and cloud computing workloads, and could lead to “new pathways for hardware-enforced security and encryption.”

“There is tremendous upside from being smaller in terms of performance, power consumption and more,” analyst Holger Mueller of Constellation Research Inc. told SiliconANGLE.

Still, it will likely be several years before the first two-nanometer chips land in consumer devices and corporate data centers. IBM Research created the world’s first seven-nanometer text chip back in 2015, but its first product based on that technology is only slated to debut later this year. IBM also came up with the first five-nanometer chip design in 2017, but it has yet to enter mass production.

“The road to making these production-grade chips is a long one, and other chipmakers have their plans as well,” Mueller said.

Even so, today’s announcement does seem to put IBM at the forefront of the race to build smaller and more powerful chipsets, at least for now. Rival chipmakers Samsung Electronics Ltd. and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Ltd. are both believed to be currently working on 3nm chip designs. TMSC also has plans to develop two-nanometer chips and will reportedly open a new research and development center in Taiwan later this year to pursue that.

China’s Huawei Technology Co. Ltd. is also said to be working on three-nanometer chips, though analysts doubt company actually has the capability to manufacture them.

IBM Research’s new chip design may well assist some of those chipmakers going forward, said analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy, while others may instead choose to up their own game.

“IBM research helps many companies with transistor and packaging technology, including Samsung and now Intel,” Moorhead said. “It has been a leader in this area for over 25 years and has had a slew of breakthroughs like this. TSMC will have to create this on their own or license it from IBM.”

Image: ColiN00B/Pixabay

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