In a shining example of the inexorable march of technology, IBM unveiled new semiconductor chips with the smallest transistors ever made. New 2-nanometer (nm) technology allows the company to cram 50 billion transistors onto a fingernail-sized chip.
The current industry standard is chips with 7nm transistors, with some high-end consumer devices, such as Apple’s M1 processors, starting to drop to 5nm. And the experimental chips have shrunk as small as 2.5nm.
IBM’s new chips pipette them all, with transistors now only 2nm wide – for reference, it’s narrower than a strand of human DNA. This of course means that tiny transistors can be pressed onto a chip much more densely than ever before, increasing the processing power and power efficiency of the device. The company claims that compared to the current 7nm chips, the newer 2nm chips can achieve 45% better performance or 75% lower power consumption.
In practical terms, IBM says the technology could improve the performance of everything from consumer electronics and AI object recognition to the reaction times of autonomous vehicles. Or, its energy savings could reduce the significant carbon footprint of data centers or create smartphone batteries that last four days on a single charge.
Transistors are often used to define technological progress – Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years or so. While this has been more or less true since it was first proposed in the 1960s, this rate has slowed somewhat in recent years.
It’s been almost four years since IBM revealed its 5nm chips with 30 billion transistors – if Moore’s Law has been followed down to a T, we’re two years behind and 10 billion transistors short. In fact, IBM is only doubling the transistors on its first 7nm chips unveiled in 2015.
Still, we shouldn’t downplay the new development – 2nm is quite a feat of engineering. As recently as 2019, engineers expressed concern that the technology wouldn’t allow much progress below 3nm. Research conducted by many companies over the past few years has allayed these concerns.
It’s likely that we won’t see these 2nm chips in consumer electronics until 2023 at the earliest, so for now, enjoy the benefits of the always impressive 5nm chips.
IBM discusses the new technological breakthrough in the video below.
IBM Unveils World’s First 2-Nanometer Chip Technology