IBM to reveal supertiny transistor

Big Blue on Monday will unveil what it says is the world's tiniest working transistor, with an electrical pathway that is 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
2 min read
IBM on Monday will unveil what it says is the world's tiniest working transistor.

Big Blue's IBM Research group will announce the new transistor at the International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) in San Francisco this week. The length of the transistor's gate--a tiny pathway for electricity--is only 6 nanometers, or 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Transistors are the tiny devices that make up a chip's circuitry, acting like an on-and-off switch for electrical signals; the gate is what turns it on and off. The new, tiny transistor is a symbolic development in chip technology because it helps prove that processor performance will see improvement many more years into the future, IBM researchers said.

Chipmakers increase the performance of their processors by adding more transistors to them following the curve of Moore's Law, a rule that states transistor counts will double every two years. The chipmakers make the extra transistors fit by shrinking them. However, if transistors can no longer be made smaller, Moore's Law as it applies to today's chip technology would grind to a halt.

IBM's new transistor, which is 10 times smaller than today's state-of-the-art transistors, proves that working transistors can continue to be made using current chip technology, or similar techniques, for 10 years or more into the future, IBM researchers said.

"The most significant achievement in this work is that this the first time we've demonstrated a transistor that is still functional at this size," said Meikei Ieong, manager of IBM Research's exploratory device and integration group.

But the tiny device, which took about a year to build, will ultimately create a lot more work for IBM before it can be put into production.

While the researchers have proven such a tiny transistor works and can be manufactured, IBM must overcome several obstacles--including power consumption, heat and electrical interference--that are even more difficult to surmount when packaging larger numbers of smaller transistors into a chip.

But one important feature of the new transistor is that it can be combined with "strained silicon," a manufacturing technique that promises to boost processor performance by up to 20 percent.

As previously reported, IBM and other chipmakers, including Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, will present papers on strained silicon and other technologies at the IEDM.

IBM hasn't set a production goal for the transistor yet. But Ieong thinks the technology "will create a lot of interest...and inspire further study."