[ExI] Whatever happened to the end of Moore's Law?

John Clark johnkclark at gmail.com
Thu Jul 9 16:34:00 UTC 2015

This was in today's New York Times:


IBM Discloses Working Version of a Much Higher-Capacity Chip


IBM said on Thursday that it had made working versions of
ultradense computer chips, with roughly four times the capacity of today’s
most powerful chips. The announcement, made on behalf of an international
consortium led by IBM, the giant computer company, is part of an effort to
manufacture the most advanced computer chips in New York’s Hudson Valley,
where IBM is investing $3 billion in a private-public partnership with New
York State, GlobalFoundries, Samsung and equipment vendors.

The development lifts a bit of the cloud that has fallen over
the semiconductor industry, which has struggled to maintain its
legendary pace of doubling transistor density every two years. Intel, which
for decades has been the industry leader, has faced technical challenges in
recent years. Moreover, technologists have begun to question whether the
longstanding pace of chip improvement, known as Moore’s Law, would continue
past the current 14-nanometer generation of chips.

Each generation of chip technology is defined by the minimum size
of fundamental components that switch current at nanosecond
intervals. Today the industry is making the commercial transition from what
the industry generally describes as 14-nanometer manufacturing to
10-nanometer manufacturing. Each generation brings roughly a 50 percent
reduction in the area required by a given amount of circuitry. IBM’s new
chips, though still in a research phase, suggest that semiconductor
technology will continue to shrink at least through 2018.

The company said on Thursday that it had working samples of chips
with seven-nanometer transistors. It made the research advance by
using silicon-germanium instead of pure silicon in key regions of the
molecular-size switches. The new material makes possible faster transistor
switching and lower power requirements. The tiny size of these transistors
suggests that further advances will require new materials and new
manufacturing techniques. As points of comparison to the size of the
seven-nanometer transistors, a strand of DNA is about 2.5 nanometers in
diameter and a red blood cell is roughly 7,500 nanometers in diameter. IBM
said that would make it possible to build microprocessors with more than 20
billion transistors.

“I’m not surprised, because this is exactly what the road map
predicted, but this is fantastic,” said Subhashish Mitra, director of the
Robust Systems Group in the Electrical Engineering Department at
Stanford University.

Even though IBM has shed much of its computer and
semiconductor manufacturing capacity, the announcement indicates that the
company remains interested in supporting the nation’s high
technology manufacturing base.

“This puts IBM in the position of being a gentleman gambler as opposed to
being a horse owner,” said Richard Doherty, president of Envisioneering, a
Seaford, N.Y., consulting firm, referring to the fact that IBM’s chip
manufacturing facility was acquired by GlobalFoundries effective last week.
They still want to be in the race,” he added. IBM now licenses the
technology it is developing to a number of manufacturers and
GlobalFoundries, owned by the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, to make chips for
companies including Broadcom, Qualcomm and Advanced Micro Devices.

The semiconductor industry must now decide if IBM’s bet on
silicon-germanium is the best way forward. It must also grapple with the
shift to using extreme ultraviolet, or EUV, light to etch patterns on chips
at a resolution that approaches the diameter of individual atoms. In the
past, Intel said it could see its way toward seven-nanometer manufacturing.
But it has not said when that generation of chip making might arrive.

IBM also declined to speculate on when it might begin
commercial manufacturing of this technology generation. This year,
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company said that it planned to begin
pilot product of seven-nanometer chips in 2017. Unlike IBM, however, it
has not demonstrated working chips to meet that goal. It is uncertain
whether the longer exposure times required by the new generation of EUV
photolithographic stepper machines would make high-speed manufacturing
operations impossible. Even the slightest vibration can undermine the
precision of the optics necessary to etch lines of molecular thicknesses,
and the semiconductor industry has been forced to build specialized
stabilized buildings to try to isolate equipment from vibration.

An IBM official said that the consortium now sees a way to use EUV light in
commercial manufacturing operations.

“EUV is another game changer,” said Mukesh Khare, vice president
for semiconductor research at IBM. To date, he noted, the demonstration
has taken place in a research lab, not in a manufacturing plant. Ultimately
the goal is to create circuits that have been reduced in area by another
50 percent over the industry’s 10-nanometer technology generation scheduled
to be introduced next year.
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