While the likes of Intel and AMD are busying themselves with their latest 10nm and 14nm processors, IBM has smashed them all with its new 5nm process. This is far ahead of even Samsung and Qualcomm’s progress on 10nm chips for mobiles, cramming in a frankly ridiculous 30 billion transistors into a tiny chip no bigger than a postage stamp.
That’s an impressive claim on its own - just two years ago we were astounded by 20 billion transistors from a 7nm fabrication process, so this represents a significant leap forward. Shrinking the die allows semiconductor manufacturers to squeeze on more transistors in the same amount of space. This allows them to create chips with increased clock rates, lower power consumption, and a greater price to performance ratio.
All of this was made possible thanks to the use of advanced extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography. This is a process which has been bandied around for some time now, yet this is the first time we’ve actually seen it used in a finalised product. EUV is seen as the next necessary step in order to continue matching the rate of Moore’s Law.
Up until now, processor manufacturers have been using three-dimensional FinFET architecture in order eke out more performance and efficiency. Optimisations of FinFET architecture have helped with die shrinks all the way up to 7nm, yet technologies such as EUV are required in order to increase transistor capacity yet further. EUV is capable of transistor features smaller than the optics of the manufacturing system can even detect.
These 5nm chips from IBM use a new Gate-All-Around transistor (GAAFET), wrapping the gate material around three nanosheets.
FinFET could conceivably be used for 5nm, but IBM believes the process is reaching its logical end. To that end, IBM is also aiming to use the same EUV GAAFET technology to scale down to 3nm.
From a performance point of view, this first 5nm chip offers 40% performance gains over current 10nm chips while consuming the same level of power. This makes them extremely power efficient, which could prove extremely useful in extending the battery life of mobile and laptop devices.