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IBM overtakes Intel with 7nm node

Posted: 13 Jul 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IBM Research  EUV  lithography  germanium  FinFET 

Intel is now lagging behind IBM Research as the latter has claimed to have finalised the 7nm node by perfecting extreme ultra-violet (EUV) lithography and using silicon-germanium channels for its finned field-effect transistors (FinFETs). According to IBM Research, their breakthrough demonstration should also keep IBM on-track in delivering its next-generation Power 8+ next year and it Power-9 processors the year after, manufactured for it by GlobalFoundries.

Alliance development partner Samsung will also get a leg-up on its race to catch up with Intel by 2018 when the first production 7nm chips are expected to appear. The 7nm test chips were fabricated at the alliance's 300mm fab at the State University of New York (SUNY) Polytechnic Institute's Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE, Albany, New York).

"I'm surprised and impressed," said Richard Fichera, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research told EE Times. "It doesn't mean they are going win the 7nm race, but it shows that they are still in the race. People that were counting them out are now going to be changing their minds. IBM has done a lot of materials research and gate design to make this happen, whereas all the stuff that Intel talked about at 7nm node was hesitant. There is no guarantee that IBM will get it into production before Intel, but it's a wakeup call to Intel that there is someone breathing down their neck even if Intel ends up becoming the major producer of 7nm parts."

IBM's 7nm node FinFETs

Transmission electron microscope (TEM) image of IBM's 7nm node FinFETs packed below 30nm fin pitch using self-aligned patterning. (Source: IBM Research)

The three major breakthroughs made by IBM to produce its test chip is the perfection of EUV lithography, the successful deposition of strained silicon-germanium transistor channels on bulk silicon wafers, and its optimisation of middle-of-the-line and back-end-of-line processing for minimisation of parasitic capacitance, thereby making its process manufacturable by merely transferring it to a 7nm fab (which will cost GlobalFoundries and Samsung upwards of $6 to $10 billion each to build).

"Our test chip has all the features we knew that we needed to keep our Power series of processors ahead in performance," said Mukesh Khare, VP of semiconductor technology for IBM Research. "Our test chip is a quantum leap forward, we have FinFETs, SRAM cells, interconnects and everything else you need on it to make real 7nm Power processors."

Of course, IBM still plans to come out with its 10nm Power processors, the design for which was revealed at last year's 2014 International Symposium on VLSI Technology and Applications, probably in 2016. But it now is on-track to keep Moore's law going to the 7nm node too, circa 2018.

"We have more work to do on it before transferring to manufacturing, of course, but we are very excited about our results so far," Khare stated. "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."

Besides showing the way forward for IBM Systems, the 7nm demonstration is also an endorsement of the joint development alliance with GlobalFoundries, Samsung and their equipment suppliers, after all GlobalFoundries is just a half-hour down the freeway from IBM's lab at SUNY and Samsung having access to the processing details should boost its credibility at 7nm as well.

"I think IBM, GlobalFoundries and Samsung are celebrating their successful collaboration with SUNY at 7nm. This is a real commitment to the idea that IBM does not need fabs and they're proud that they are going be able to supply fabs with this turn-of-the-crank on Moore's law," said Richard Doherty, research director of the Envisioneering Group. "The next phase of semiconductors will be very different, especially regarding Intel. IBM's secret sauce is its silicon-germanium channels and would have been an amazing achievement at 10nm, but at 7nm are remarkable."

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