Don’t write the obituary for Moore’s Law just yet. IBM researchers in New York are making sure it stays alive for the time being. The IBM researchers developed a transistor manufacturing process that they believe will enable the commercial production of chips with just 5-nanometer features. The process involves etching the chip with extreme ultraviolet lithography as they have with previous chip generations but they replaced the usual FinFET design with silicon nanosheets. Replacing the FinFET design with silicon nanosheets enables them to adjust each circuit to squeeze out as much performance as possible.
5-nanometers is truly tiny, with features at 5-nanometers the researchers can fit more than 30 billion transistors on a chip smaller than a penny. Building chips with features smaller than 1 or 2-nanometers may require researchers to start to thinking about developing atomically precise manufacturing. Back in the 1980s, nanotechnologist Dr. Eric Drexler predicted that atomically precise manufacturing, or molecular manufacturing as it was called at the time, would be needed to continue Moore’s Law by the early 2020s, and it looks like that prediction is right on schedule. Whether or not the chip manufacturers recognize the potential of atomically precise manufacturing and develop it in time to prevent a serious slowdown of Moore’s Law is another question.
Commercial production of these chips is still a few years out, you’ll probably see them in devices around 2020-2021 if all goes to plan. It is impressive that 5-nanometer chips are clearly feasible to be produced commercially with extreme ultraviolet lithography given the fact that many of Moore’s Law’s critics argued that the party would end at 7-nanometers (due out in 2018) and as late as last year some were still arguing that 5-nanometers may never be possible.
IBM believes chips with 5-nanometer features will help with its artificial intelligence and virtual reality efforts by significantly reducing the power requirements per computation. IBM is also predicting that these chips will increase the battery life of smartphones and tablets by up to threefold.
My advice to IBM? Throw some cash at Dr. Eric Drexler and get the ball rolling on atomically precise manufacturing.