IBM Dancing on the Head of 20 Nanometers

Loraine Lawson

I'm about to share some exciting news about a new chip development by IBM.

But first, it's pop quiz time.

True or False: Moore's Law means the processing speed of CPUs doubles every 18 months.

If you said true, you're wrong and should keep reading. The rest of you may skip down six paragraphs.

Here's a few facts about Moore's Law, which, frankly, I didn't understand until I started reading up on nanocircuits:

  1. Moore's Law is actually about doubling the number of transisters on an integrated circuit -- while still keeping the costs to a minimum. That last part is key. Sure, you could spend a bunch of money to build a faster circuit. But who cares if the cost is so high you can build only one?
  2. Moore's law isn't a law. It's an observation made by Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel. Somebody else started calling it a law and it stuck.

And you needed to know these two facts to understand that ...


Eventually, this whole doubling speed thing will come to an end. You can find out all the details by reading the Wikipedia entry on Moore's Law.


For our purposes, suffice it to say that one reasons Moore's Law may reach its cap is the problem of power leakage between circuits. And that's where the news from IBM comes in. IBM has created a new process called airgap. This process creates trillions of microscopic vacuum holes, which can be used as insulation between the copper wires in chips -- thus reducing the power leakage. IBM predicts this process will create chips that run 35 percent faster while consuming 15 percent less energy.


These pockets are each only only 20-nanometer in diameter, according to a BBC article. If it helps, picture a pinhead. Now imagine it divided into one million parts - that's one nanometer. So, picture something 20 times bigger than that.


How do they ever come up with this stuff? Well, in this case, they created the method after studying seashells, snowflakes and teeth. The real breakthrough, however, isn't the actual idea so much as the manufacturing process that makes it possible to mass produce this insulation, according to a Cambridge University senior research associate quoted in the BBC article.


The researcher expresses some reservation about whether the chips will actually deliver the promised speeds in the real world. Alas, we won't know for sure until 2009. For now, the technology is only being used in test circuits.

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