Progress in computer chip design charted by Moore's Law has already shrunk computers from refrigerator-sized hulks to smartphones that fit in your pocket. But it is getting harder to develop each new generation of chip technology, requiring years of materials research and manufacturing facilities costing about $10 billion.
IBM working with its allies has now built a computer circuitry significantly more powerful than any before. Their work signals that it will be feasible to miniaturize chips further, helping to enable devices like powerful smart-watches or perhaps augmented-reality contact lenses.
Moore's Law is named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who 50 years ago noticed steady improvements in the number of transistors on a chip. Under Moore's Law, that number doubles every two years, unlocking new computing power and making it economical to squeeze processors into ever-smaller devices.
Today's cutting-edge chips from Samsung and Intel are built with circuitry features measuring 14 nanometers, or 14 billionths of a meter. That's extraordinarily small: 14nm is 7,000 times narrower than a human hair.
One generation out will be chips with 10nm features that will double the circuitry for a given area. Two generations outcome 7nm chips, and that's what IBM Research has demonstrated.
"It's a major step," said Mukesh Khare, vice president of semiconductor technology at IBM Research. "We have been working on this technology for more than five years."
IBM's 10nm technology improved the power-performance ratio by 40 percent or 50 percent over today's 14nm chips, meaning that a computer designer could either lower power consumption for better battery life or speed up software running on a computer. The 7nm design increases the power-performance ratio another 50 percent over the 10nm generation, Khare said.