Major IBM Breakthrough Scales Carbon Nanotube Transistors Below 10nm

On the consumer side, we're accustomed to chip makers introducing increasingly smaller and faster processors, as has been the case over the past several decades. But like trying to fold a piece of paper in half over and over again, there comes a point where going smaller may require new methods. The semiconductor industry is nearly at that point, so what's the solution?

It could be carbon nanotubes. IBM today announced an engineering breakthrough that could fast track the replacement of silicon transistors with carbon nanotubes. That breakthrough is a new way of shrinking transistor contacts without hampering performance of carbon nanotube devices, which in turn could lead to "dramatically faster, smaller, and more powerful computer chips" that extend capabilities beyond that of traditional semiconductors.

Carbon Nanotube

Silicon transistors are tiny switches that carry information on a chip. They've been made smaller year after year, but with Intel and others looking to go below 10nm on a mass scale, chip makers are quickly reaching the point of physical limitation

"IBM has previously shown that carbon nanotube transistors can operate as excellent switches at channel dimensions of less than ten nanometers – the equivalent to 10,000 times thinner than a strand of human hair and less than half the size of today’s leading silicon technology," IBM explains. "IBM's new contact approach overcomes the other major hurdle in incorporating carbon nanotubes into semiconductor devices, which could result in smaller chips with greater performance and lower power consumption."

What IBM did is forego traditional contact schemes in use today and invented a metallurgical process similar to microscopic welding that chemically binds the metal atoms to the carbon atoms at the end of nanotubes. IBM refers to its as an "end-bonded contact scheme," which allows the contacts to be shrunken below 10nm without sacrificing performance.

Looking ahead, IBM says its method could overcome challenges related to contact resistance all the way down to 1.8nm.