The world’s first 7nm (nanometre) chips, which could potentially result in the ability to place more than 20-billion tiny transistors on fingernail-sized chips, have been developed by an alliance led by IBM Research. To achieve the higher performance, lower power and scaling benefits promised by 7nm technology, researchers had to bypass conventional semiconductor manufacturing approaches. Among the novel processes and techniques pioneered by the IBM Research alliance were a number of industry-first innovations, most notably Silicon Germanium (SiGe) channel transistors and Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography integration at multiple levels.

Industry experts consider 7nm technology crucial to meeting the anticipated demands of future cloud computing and big data systems, cognitive computing, mobile products and other emerging technologies.

Part of IBM’s $3-billion, five-year investment in chip R&D (announced in 2014), this accomplishment was made possible through a public-private partnership with New York State and joint development alliance with GlobalFoundries, Samsung, and equipment suppliers. The team is based at Suny Polytechnic’s NanoTech Complex in Albany.

“For business and society to get the most out of tomorrow’s computers and devices, scaling to 7nm and beyond is essential,” says Arvind Krishna, senior vice-president and director of IBM Research. “That’s why IBM has remained committed to an aggressive basic research agenda that continually pushes the limits of semiconductor technology. Working with our partners, this milestone builds on decades of research that has set the pace for the microelectronics industry, and positions us to advance our leadership for years to come.”

Microprocessors utilising 22nm and 14nm technology power today’s servers, cloud data centres and mobile devices, and 10nm technology is well on the way to becoming a mature technology.

The IBM Research-led alliance achieved close to 50% area scaling improvements over today’s most advanced technology, introduced SiGe channel material for transistor performance enhancement at 7nm node geometries, process innovations to stack them below 30nm pitch and full integration of EUV lithography at multiple levels.

These techniques and scaling could result in at least a 50% power/performance improvement for next generation mainframe and Power systems that will power the big data, cloud and mobile era.

“Governor Andrew Cuomo’s trailblazing public-private partnership model is catalysing historic innovation and advancement,” says Michael Liehr, Suny Poly executive vice-president of innovation and technology and vice-president of research. “Today’s announcement is just one example of our collaboration with IBM, which furthers New York State’s global leadership in developing next generation technologies. Enabling the first 7nm node transistors is a significant milestone for the entire semiconductor industry as we continue to push beyond the limitations of our current capabilities.”

Gary Patton, chief technology officer and head of worldwide R&D at GlobalFoundries, adds: “Today’s announcement marks the latest achievement in our long history of collaboration to accelerate development of next-generation technology. Through this joint collaborative program based at the Albany NanoTech Complex, we are able to maintain our focus on technology leadership for our clients and partners by helping to address the development challenges central to producing a smaller, faster, more cost efficient generation of semiconductors.”

The 7nm node milestone continues IBM’s legacy of historic contributions to silicon and semiconductor innovation. They include the invention or first implementation of the single cell DRAM, the Dennard Scaling Laws, chemically amplified photoresists, copper interconnect wiring, Silicon on Insulator, strained engineering, multi core microprocessors, immersion lithography, high speed SiGe, High-k gate dielectrics, embedded DRAM, 3D chip stacking and Air gap insulators.

* Picture: Dr Michael Liehr (left) of Suny Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering and Bala Haran (right) of IBM Research inspect a wafer comprised of 7nm node test chips in a clean room in Albany. (Darryl Bautista/Feature Photo Service for IBM)