Despite the fact that its semiconductor operations are reported to be on the block and up for sale it was chip business as usual for IBM as it said Thursday it would invest $3 billion over the next five years to try and keep Moore's Law alive.
The company said it plans to do this by funding two broad research and early stage development programs. The first would be on scaling of silicon devices from to 7nm minimum geometries and beyond. The second would look at alternative technologies and materials that are now thought to be essential bridges to a post-silicon era.
IBM said it would research such topics as carbon nanoelectronics, silicon photonics, memory technologies and computer architectures that support quantum and cognitive computing. The last mentioned includes neuromorphic computer architectures such as neural networks. The IBM research teams to address these challenges would be drawn from Albany and Yorktown, New York; Almaden, California; and IBM sites in Europe.
"The question is not if we will introduce 7 nanometer technology into manufacturing, but rather how, when, and at what cost?" said John Kelly, senior vice president, IBM Research, in a statement. "IBM engineers and scientists, along with our partners, are well suited for this challenge and are already working on the materials science and device engineering required to meet the demands of the emerging system requirements for cloud, big data, and cognitive systems. This new investment will ensure that we produce the necessary innovations to meet these challenges."
Preparing for the post-silicon era
To get beyond 7nm will likely require a move away from silicon as the active switching material – although silicon could potentially be used as carrier or manufacturing platform. Potential alternatives include new materials such as carbon nanotubes, graphene and non-traditional computational approaches such as neuromorphic computing, cognitive computing, machine learning techniques, and the science behind quantum computing, IBM said.
IBM said it holds more than 500 patents for technologies that could be used to at 7nm and beyond, more than twice as many as any other company. One of the promising bridge technologies is the integration of III-V semiconductors into CMOS as transistors built in these materials can show an electron mobility that is an order of magnitude higher than that of silicon. Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) could replace silicon beyond 7nm. IBM recently demonstrated CMOS NAND gates using 50nm gate length carbon nanotube transistors. And graphene is the rolled out form of CNT with carbon atoms arranged in a one atomic layer thick sheet. In 2013 IBM demonstrated a graphene-based front end IC for wireless communications. The circuit consisted of a 2-stage amplifier and a down converter operating at 4.3GHz.
There are many possible ways to re-engineer silicon MOSFETs and one promising strand of research uses quantum mechanical electron band to electron band tunneling to drive current through the transistor. IBM claimed that the power reduction over conventional CMOS transistors could be a factor of 100.
"In the next ten years computing hardware systems will be fundamentally different as our scientists and engineers push the limits of semiconductor innovations to explore the post-silicon future," said Tom Rosamilia, senior vice president, IBM Systems and Technology Group.
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