IBM has developed a new carbon nanotube-based chip making technology

IBM researcher Hongsik Park looks over wafer with carbon nanotubes.

Researchers at International Business Machines‘ (s IBM) T.J. Watson Research Center in New York have made a new technology breakthrough that will help us keep transistors, the basic build blocks of our technology-infused world, getting smaller and more powerful. The IBM scientists have been able to place and test over 10,000 carbon nanotube transistors on a single-chip using standard semiconductor processes. Carbon nanotubes are single atomic sheets of carbon rolled up into a tube. The news was first reported in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Why is this important? Because it allows chip-makers to cram more and more transistors into smaller and smaller wafers and thus have more powerful chips to power our digital devices. Chip transistors are currently coming up against physical limitations and already have hit the nanoscale and there are some who believe that this will slow down performance gains in the near future. The magic formula of lower power, lower cost and higher speeds that have become the hall mark of the modern chip business is going to come apart, some argue. IBM scientists, however, believe that this new carbon nanotube technology is the next step up.

Carbon nanotubes represent a new class of semiconductor materials whose electrical properties are more attractive than silicon, particularly for building nanoscale transistor devices that are a few tens of atoms across. Electrons in carbon transistors can move easier than in silicon-based devices allowing for quicker transport of data. The nanotubes are also ideally shaped for transistors at the atomic scale, an advantage over silicon. These qualities are among the reasons to replace the traditional silicon transistor with carbon – and coupled with new chip design architectures – will allow computing innovation on a miniature scale for the future.

Last year, IBM showed carbon nanotube transistors that can work much like silicon transistors and suggested that there would be five to ten times improvement in performance compared to silicon. Carbon nanotubes is viewed as a new wonder material and scientists are trying to find new uses for it in chips, energy storage and conversion and DNA sequencing. That said, it would be a while before this carbon nanotube-based manufacturing technology becomes mainstream and commercially available.