IBM taking Moore's Law by the horns

New technology from Big Blue will boost Moore's Law -- but can the 35-year-old tech rule of thumb keep up with the times?

New technology breakthroughs from IBM Research promise to extend the reach of Moore's Law, the chip industry's most closely held measure of performance.

Moore's Law, an observation of Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, states that the number of transistors in a processor will double every 24 months. Despite falling under scrutiny from time to time, it continues to accurately reflect the progression of chip technology and become associated with increases in processor performance and complexity. Moore's Law in recent years has shortened to reflect a doubling of transistor count and performance every 18 months.

IBM's latest breakthrough, a new chip transistor design known as V-Groove, will allow the company to stay ahead of the curve of Moore's Law 15 to 20 years in the future, should it find its way into production.

V-Groove transistors are capable of scaling to channel lengths of ten nanometres, or lengths of 0.01 micron and below.

Channel length represents the distance electricity needs to travel through a transistor; shorter transistors lessen the distance traveled, delivering greater performance. Right now, IBM, and the chip industry as a whole, is at 180 nanometers, or 0.18 micron. It had been widely believed that 20 to 25 nanometers were a hard stop. "Using this simple technique, we can get channels as small as ten nanometres or smaller," said Phaedon Avouris, manager of nanometre-scale science at IBM Research.

IBM says its V-Groove technique improves on current photolithography manufacturing techniques, which project an image of a transistor onto a chip, then physically remove excess silicon. V-Groove, in addition to lithography techniques, uses chemicals to create an anisotropic chemical reaction. That reaction burns away silicon faster downward than side-to-side, creating the namesake V-Groove channel. Channels, when produced using this technique, are much finer -- and therefore help eliminate electrical cross talk, otherwise known as the short-channel effect.

The short-channel effect -- which causes electrical interference between transistors located too close together -- had been the barrier to breaking the 20-nanometre mark. Normally, transistors switch on and off rapidly. The short-channel effect prevents them from switching off. V-Groove reduces short-channel effects, allowing normally functioning transistors to be built on this small scale.

With help from university research partners MIT and UCLA, IBM has been able to manufacture test transistors using V-Groove. It is now moving to create test chips using the technology. IBM officials say the experiment proves that it is possible to build chips with channel lengths smaller than previously thought possible. At the same time it proves Moore's Law is alive and well.

"Overall, we are very optimistic. This is a way of making a device to study transistors on a very small scale," Avouris said. "We are not looking for production. We are looking for a meaningful discussion of the limits of a small device. We'll leave it up to the engineers to discover the best way to put this into production."

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