What’s So Special about IBM’s New Nanometer Chip?

Recently, IBM announced that it had developed the world’s first chip with 2 nanometer (nm) nanosheet technology. My first reaction upon hearing this news was; huh? What’s 2nm nanosheet technology and why should I be happy about it?

I made a wild guess that this chip was probably fast, otherwise, why bother announcing it. But just how fast is it? And, indeed, IBM announced that this new chip had a “45 percent higher performance, or 75 percent lower energy use, than today’s most advanced 7 nm node chips.”  Well, I guess that clears that up, except for one minor question. How fast is today’s most advanced 7 nm chip? And what exactly is a 7 nm chip anyway?

To get the answer to this age-old question, I went to the source of all knowledge, Wikipedia. I was sure they would give a clear and unambiguous answer to this question. “In semiconductor manufacturing, the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors defines the nm process as the MOSFET technology node following the 10 nm node. It is based on FinFET (fin field-effect transistor) technology, a type of multi-gate MOSFET technology.” Oddly, this really didn’t make anything clearer.

But delving deeper into this, I found that it all boiled down to one basic idea: size matters: In the semiconductor business, the smaller the better. The smaller the transistor, the more you can put on a chip and the faster the processor and the less heat they produce. So a 2 nm transistor is smaller than the current 7 nm transistor, which gives them a 45% performance advantage and a 75% lower energy use. 50 billion transistors can be placed on a chip the size of a fingernail.

Now, the next question: What is nanosheet technology?  In the simplest terms, this refers to the design of the transistors. The evolution has been from leaky, heat-producing transistors like this

to more efficient transistors designed like this.

So now that we have this new chip, what can we do with it? Well, nothing, for the time being. It’s estimated it won’t be seen in any devices for about 4 years. However, when it does appear, it could change our lives in quite a number of ways.

According to IBM, such a chip would quadruple smartphone battery life, possibly requiring charging only once every four days. As we close in on ubiquitous self-driving cars, their cameras and their integrated computers will need to react more quickly to changing road conditions to make appropriate decisions. Gaming, with its power hungry graphics, need more speed for a more realistic experience. This is especially true of VR gaming and VR in general.

One growing area that is hungry for high-speed chips is that of bitcoin mining. Currently, huge amounts of electricity are needed to mine just one bitcoin. According to one study, the energy needed to mine one bitcoin is “the equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of Argentina.” Since only 21 million bitcoins will ever be allowed, it takes more and more power to solve algorithms that, by necessity, must become more and more complex. As a Guardian article noted, “the average computer can no longer mine bitcoins. Instead, mining now requires special computer equipment that can handle the intense processing power needed to get bitcoin today.” And the demand for more computer power means a demand for more powerful chips, which, in turn, is leading to a chip shortfall around the world.

It should not be assumed that we are at the end of transistor miniaturization. What may change is the concept that underlies traditional production. Silicon-only transistors have already changed to silicon alloy chips using, for example a silicon-germanium alloy. However, the future may open up new transistor ideas such as photon-based transistors. Photons have no size at all, but they do exist as waves. Scientists have recently discovered how to use this wave property to act like a transistor. Basically, a photon is trapped in a slit-filled semiconductor, opening and closing transistor gates as it goes but without wires and without producing heat. Though not technically a quantum computer it would work at speeds that cannot truly be comprehended by modern measurements. A photonic chip developed by MIT, however, is claimed to be 10 million times more efficient than modern chips. To put it in more simple terms, some day your smartphone will really be smarter than you.

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