IBM breakthrough heralds a post-silicon future for IoT

2 Oct 201563 Shares

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Using carbon nanotubes instead of traditional silicon could help chip makers move beyond the physical limits imposed by Moore's Law.

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A major engineering breakthrough by IBM that uses carbon nanotubes instead of silicon transistors could accelerate the future of computing, particularly areas like internet of things, big data and mobile battery life.

IBM scientists have found a new way of shrinking transistor contacts without reducing the performance of carbon nanotube devices.

This opens a pathway to faster, smaller and more powerful computer chips beyond the capabilities of traditional semiconductors.

The results have been reported in the 2 October issue of Science.

‘As silicon technology nears its physical limits, new materials, devices and circuit architectures must be ready to deliver the advanced technologies that will be required by the cognitive computing era’
– DARIO GIL

The implications of the breakthrough are that big data, for example, could be analysed faster, the battery life of mobile devices could be greatly enhanced and internet of things (IoT) data centres could perform more efficiently and economically.

Silicon transistors, tiny switches that carry information on a chip, have been made smaller year after year, but they are approaching a point of physical limitation. With Moore’s Law running out of steam, shrinking the size of the transistor – including the channels and contacts – without compromising performance has been a vexing challenge troubling researchers for decades.

IBM to invest US$3bn in a post-silicon future

Earlier this summer, IBM unveiled the first seven-nanometer node silicon test chip, pushing the limits of silicon technologies and ensuring further innovations for IBM Systems and the IT industry.

By advancing research of carbon nanotubes to replace traditional silicon devices, IBM is paving the way for a post-silicon future and delivering on its US$3bn chip R&D investment announced in July 2014.

Carbon nanotubes represent a new class of semiconductor materials that consist of single atomic sheets of carbon rolled up into a tube. The carbon nanotubes form the core of a transistor device whose superior electrical properties promise several generations of technology scaling beyond the physical limits of silicon.

Electrons in carbon transistors can move more easily than in silicon-based devices, and the ultra-thin body of carbon nanotubes provide additional advantages at the atomic scale. Inside of a chip, contacts are the valves that control the flow of electrons from metal into the channels of a semiconductor. As transistors shrink in size, electrical resistance increases within the contacts, which impedes performance.

“These chip innovations are necessary to meet the emerging demands of cloud computing, internet of things and big data systems,” said Dario Gil, vice president of science and technology at IBM Research.

“As silicon technology nears its physical limits, new materials, devices and circuit architectures must be ready to deliver the advanced technologies that will be required by the cognitive computing era. This breakthrough shows that computer chips made of carbon nanotubes will be able to power systems of the future sooner than the industry expected.”

Engineering R&D image via Shutterstock

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com