A consortium led by IBM has developed the world’s smallest, functional microelectronic devices – computer chips constructed around circuitry just 7 nanometers wide.

The new chips, produced using silicon-germanium by a group comprised of IBM, Global Foundries, the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute and Samsung, use chip geometries that are half the dimensions used in the most advanced commercial microprocessors available today.

How small is 7 nanometers? A single nanometer is one billionth of a meter. For perspective, a strand of human DNA measures 2.5 nanometers, and a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

“Today the industry is making the commercial transition from what the industry generally describes as 14-nanometer manufacturing to 10-nanometer manufacturing,” John Markoff reports in the New York Times.

In microelectronics, smaller is better because it packs more circuitry on each individual chip, reducing power consumption, increasing speed and generating less heat. “IBM said the new chips promise 50 percent power-to-performance improvement over existing server chips,” reports Business Cloud News.

The breakthrough is also important for two other reasons: First, it points the way toward a post-silicon era – experts had long signaled that pure silicon would not support circuitry smaller than 10 nanometers. And second, the discovery keeps alive – at least for another few years – Moore’s Law, the axiom that has defined the computer age: That the number of transistors packed on a chip will continue to double every 18-24 months, producing corresponding improvements in performance, indefinitely.

The new technology was developed to “meet the anticipated demands of future cloud computing and Big Data systems, cognitive computing, mobile products and other emerging technologies,” IBM said.

“The breakthrough… could result in the ability to place more than 20 billion tiny switches – transistors – on the fingernail-sized chips that power everything from smartphones to spacecraft,” the company reported.

“Our test chip has all the features we knew that we needed to keep our Power series of processors ahead in performance,” Mukesh Khare, vice president of semiconductor technology for IBM Researchtold EE Times. “We have more work to do on it before transferring to manufacturing, of course, but we are very excited about our results so far: We have successfully made a major change in lithography, a major change in materials and insured the way forward for IBM high-performance systems for cloud computing and big data.”

One interesting subplot to IBM’s announcement was this – it wasn’t Intel, which is regarded as the industry producer of semiconductor chips.

“I believe Intel has done the same thing already,” one analyst told Wired’s Cade Metz. “They’re just not telling people.”

Or maybe not. Roger Kay, founder and president of Endpoint Technologies in Wayland, Mass., told EE Times’ R. Colin Johnson: “Intel said they have 10-nanometer nailed and 7-nanometer on the way, but Intel has been very quiet lately and now it appears that IBM is ahead at 7-nanometer.”

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