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IBM says new microscopic, super-dense chip might in just a few years quadruple your cellphone’s battery life

IBM's 2-nanometer microchips were built into a wafer that will be cut up into microchips at its research lab in Albany, N.Y.
IBM's 2-nanometer microchips were built into a wafer that will be cut up into microchips at its research lab in Albany, N.Y.IBM/Handout

IBM says it has created a computer chip with components measuring just 2 nanometers across, about the width of a strand of DNA, in a move hailed as a breakthrough in semiconductor manufacturing.

The microscopic chip parts — there are 25.4 million nanometers in an inch — could lead to improvements in virtually every electronic device that includes them, since smaller components tend to equal faster performance and lower energy use.

Computer chips powering most new devices today have transistors that range from 5 nanometers in premium smartphones to 10 nanometers in some PCs. But imagine needing to charge your smartphone only every four days or doubling your laptop’s speed with little added cost.

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IBM says that reality may be about five years away, thanks to the achievement, announced last week by the company’s research lab in Albany, N.Y.

’'It’s a remarkable feat of engineering,’' said Dario Gil, senior vice president and director of IBM research. ’'You will see it first in lower-end devices such as laptops and cellphones, then later in high-end mainframes that power the world’s financial systems. It will appear in self-driving cars, in our appliances and our computers of every possible kind.’'

The tech conglomerate says its 2-nanometer breakthrough may improve computer performance by 45 percent or lower the energy use of the same devices by 75 percent, compared to its current 7-nanometer alternative.

IBM’s key innovation lies in its ability to shrink electronic switches known as transistors so that more of them fit onto a computer chip, which is a wafer of semiconductor material. Computer chips make dumb devices smart through complex circuitry. Increasing the number of transistors on a chip can make computers run more efficiently.

Every couple of years, tech companies such as IBM, Intel, and Samsung have found new ways to pack additional transistors onto computer chips under what’s known as Moore’s Law — the idea that the number of transistors that can be placed on a chip doubles every two years. The added transistors, typically measured in nanometers, allow devices to get better over time.

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For now, IBM’s 2-nanometer transistors serve as a proof of concept, showing that smaller, more powerful chips are indeed possible, despite analysts’ concerns that the age of doubling chip densities might be reaching an end.

The microscopic size of the development is difficult to grasp. ’'Human hair is 10,000 nanometers, so that gives you a sense of how tiny these features are,’' said Arvind Krishna, the chief executive of IBM, in a Washington Post Live interview last week.

IBM said it can fit 50 billion of them on a silicon chip the size of a fingernail. At its research lab, it built the 2 nanometer tech onto a round, 300-millimeter wafer. Wafers are then cut to make individual chips.

Developing the chip took four years, hundreds of scientists, and billions of dollars. IBM, which spends about $6 billion a year on research and development, also had to invest in new fabrication techniques to build the chip layer by atomic layer, Gil said.

Fourteen-nanometer transistors were once the gold standard. However, seven-nanometer transistors are becoming increasingly popular these days, Gil said. IBM was the first to unveil its 7-nanometer process in 2015, and the tech will debut this year in a new IBM processor. Chips undergo lengthy production cycles, so developments announced today could take years before they’re ready to go into devices.

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IBM is far from the only company working to roll out more densely packed computer chips. The Taiwan chip manufacturer TSMC and Samsung are producing 5-nanometer transistor chips, and Apple has 5-nanometer tech in some of its latest devices. Intel is experiencing production delays on its next-generation 7-nanometer tech, now set to hit the market in 2022.

Higher-powered chips don’t necessarily mean that people will pay more for devices, since gadget makers can pair newer tech with some older components, said Patrick Moorhead, a stock analyst for the chip industry.

IBM says its new chip concept might quadruple the battery life of cellphones that use the 7-nanometer process, such as the iPhone 11, Samsung Galaxy S10, and Google Pixel 5.

Demand for smaller, more-efficient computer components is rising globally as tech companies seek to push out new devices with cheaper circuitry. IBM’s announcement comes amid a semiconductor shortage that has had ripple effects across many industries, including automotive and consumer electronics.

However, IBM’s microchip project wouldn’t hit the market soon enough to have much of an impact on the current conditions. IBM expects production to begin in late 2024 or 2025. It doesn’t mass-produce the chips in-house. Instead, it focuses on research and licenses its production techniques to other companies, including Samsung and Intel.