On a silicon sheet, the most modern processors resemble expansive suburbs, with transistors stacked like blocks of dwellings. IBM attempts to flatten the entire neighborhood and replace it with residential complexes.
The tech giant unveiled a VTFET, or Vertical-Transport Field-Effect Transistor, which it claims can double the speed of FinFETs, which have dominated the semiconductor scene for the past decade. IBM claims that placing transistors perpendicular to the plane of a chip saves space by allowing current to flow up and down rather than cascading via transistors strewn across the device side by side.
The new transistor, according to IBM, will allow firms to continue cramming transistors onto processors used in everything from phones and laptops to data centers. Moore’s Law, which calls for packing more features onto silicon wafers, has been the chip industry’s credo for decades, resulting in smaller, faster, and more efficient computers. However, the rate at which these engineering miracles are accomplished has been declining for years.
Due to enhanced electrostatic control and parasitics, VTFET transistors may give twice the performance at the same power level as FinFET transistors scaled to the same production node, according to IBM. According to IBM, it can also provide an 85 percent power savings compared to FinFETs at the same frequency. However, mastering the technical and production achievements underlying VTFET might take years.
IBM was formerly one of the most advanced chip producers globally, but it began outsourcing its production to Samsung years ago. It remains a semiconductor research powerhouse, with an immense research lab in Albany, New York, that generates chip test runs, including VTFET test chips. IBM has a cooperative development agreement with Samsung to exploit IBM’s technologies, cooperating with the VTFET.
The company intends to profit by licensing its technology to other businesses. Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger unveiled his IBM 2.0 plan earlier this year, including a new research partnership with IBM. The VTFET is IBM’s second major semiconductor breakthrough in several months.
IBM announced the world’s first semiconductor-based on 2-nm technology earlier this year, which promises to be smaller and quicker than the 5-nm CPUs used in high-end phones like Apple’s iPhone 13. The 2-nm device, based on IBM’s nanosheet—or gate-all-around (GAA)—technology, has 50 billion transistors in a 150-mm2 area, giving it a density of approximately 330 million transistors per square millimeter.
Billions of transistors are grouped into logic gates in the most powerful computers. Electrons cascade between components known as the “source” and “drain” contacts, generating a current-conducting “channel.” The channel affects power efficiency by determining how quickly current flows and leaks out. The “gate” controls the flow by turning on and off the transistor to represent 1s and 0s.
FinFET transistors are employed in today’s most modern chips. In the transistor, a fin-shaped silicon ridge is positioned with the gate encircling it, producing channels on three sides. When a transistor is switched “off,” the three-dimensional geometry of the fin allows more current to flow during the “on” state and less current to leak out of a channel. This increases performance and minimizes the amount of power a chip consumes.
IBM and others have been racing for decades to fit ever-smaller transistors onto squares of silicon by lowering gate pitch and scaling the connecting cables between them. The Contacting Gate Pitch (CGP) is the physical space where all components are situated. However, because the most modern switches are now smaller than a virus, they are running out of space to fit the pieces into the CGP’s limited space.
According to IBM, the VTFET flips the fin within the transistor such that the source and drain are perpendicular to the gate, substantially enhancing density scaling. To prevent interference, a processor’s transistors must be segregated from one another. “Isolation gates” are placed between them by chip designers to keep them separate. VTFET, according to IBM, will eliminate these components, allowing more transistors to be crammed onto the device.
The device’s gates, spaces, and contacts are no longer confined in the same way due to the vertical orientation, offering firms more flexibility in fine-tuning the transistor’s performance and power consumption. According to IBM, companies may change many features of the transistor to boost driving current, leakage, or capacitance. VTFET may also employ more enormous source and drain connections to increase current driving capability, according to IBM.
The research has excellent prospects for IBM and Samsung. VTFET transistors, according to the businesses, may be utilized in ultra-efficient processors that might extend a smartphone’s battery life to more than a week rather than just a day.