IBM Announces Carbon Nanotube Research Breakthrough: Why It's A Big Deal

  • IBM announced a research breakthrough in carbon nanotube electronics for post-silicon electronics.
  • Carbon nanotubes are one of the most promising replacements for silicon and could keep electronics and computing on Moore's Law.
  • IBM needs new computer systems that stay on Moore's Law of exponentially increasing performance to support its push to next-generation applications.
  • The research breakthrough brings IBM a step closer to ultra-high performance carbon nanotube technology within the decade.
  • IBM and Intel are the two companies that are doing more to push the miniaturization and performance of computer chips to new heights.

IBM (NYSE:IBM) announced a research breakthrough that could soon permit replacing silicon transistors with carbon nanotubes in future high-performance electronic chips.

Carbon nanotubes consist of single atomic sheets of carbon rolled up into a tube. The carbon nanotubes form the core of a transistor device whose superior electrical properties promise several generations of technology scaling beyond the physical limits of silicon. The IBM researchers developed a fabrication process that permits overcoming previous obstacles in nanotube electronics manufacturing.

"These chip innovations are necessary to meet the emerging demands of cloud computing, Internet of Things and Big Data systems," said Dario Gil, vice president of Science & Technology at IBM Research. "As silicon technology nears its physical limits, new materials, devices and circuit architectures must be ready to deliver the advanced technologies that will be required by the Cognitive Computing era. This breakthrough shows that computer chips made of carbon nanotubes will be able to power systems of the future sooner than the industry expected."

In fact, IBM is betting on next-generation applications that need ultra-powerful computers. In particular, IBM is betting big on the coming era of cognitive computing - computer systems that understand the world in the way that humans do. As recently reported by Amigobulls, IBM is expanding its Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform Watson, with new Application Programming Interfaces (API) for cognitive computing. The planned applications of cognitive computing, which include machine learning, computer vision, and natural language understanding, are very computationally demanding and will need very high performance computer systems both on premise and in the cloud.

Gil added that the research breakthrough brings IBM a step closer to the goal of a carbon nanotube technology within the decade.

Seeking Alpha notes that the development could start a new phase of growth for IBM. In fact, the possible use of carbon nanotubes to shrink transistor size is urgently needed to keep electronics on Moore's Law.

Originally stated by Intel Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) founder Gordon Moore in 1965, Moore's Law is the observation that the density of electronic chips, and consequently the performance of computing devices, doubles every two years, but advances in chip development have slowed recently and the current trend is toward a longer doubling period according to many industry experts. But carbon nanotube technology could open a new, post-silicon phase of development for electronic circuits, which could that stay on Moore's Law. The IBM press release notes that their new approach could scale all the way to the 1.8 nanometer transistor – four technology generations away from the 14 nanometer of today's technology.

"It’s a major step towards having reassurance that we’ll have semiconductors working beyond the limits of silicon," said Richard Doherty, the director of technology consulting firm Envisioneering, as reported by Wired. "Moore’s Law can continue on."

Fortune notes that the foundation of our information economy is built on Moore's Law, but its progress threatens to slow down because we are reaching the physical limits of manufacturing ultra-dense chips. That’s one reason IBM is spending $3 billion on basic semiconductor research, and the new result is a crucial step that could lead to more efficient post-silicon electronics.

"Carbon nanotubes are one of the most promising replacements for silicon in semiconductors," wrote Gil on a IBM research blog. "That’s because they can be used to build incredibly tiny devices and they use less power to switch the state of transistors - which is how we create the ones and zeros essential for digital computing."

Of course, IBM is not alone in the quest to keep electronics and computing on Moore's Law, nor are carbon nanotubes the only promising technologies on the table. Intel plans to release 10 nanometer silicon chips over the next two years, and IBM previously announced that can build a chip from silicon and germanium whose smallest features are in the 7 nanometer range.

"Investors should take a vested interest in the progress of tech giants like Intel and IBM in bringing Moore's Law back into balance," concludes Seeking Alpha. In fact, IBM and Intel are the two companies that are doing more to push the miniaturization and performance of computer chips to new heights - with a primary focus on research and manufacturing, respectively - and the stocks of both companies are likely to reflect that in the mid term.

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