After 45nm, comes 32nm, which doesn't present any great manufacturing process hurdles. But 22nm is a different story. And IBM is trying to lead the way--ahead of Intel.
At its most basic, photolithography--the conventional process for making semiconductor chips--means using a mask to cast a shadow onto a light-sensitive material called a resist. Based on this, the circuits are then "printed." This is where 22nm is hitting a wall. "Once the wavelength of light becomes comparable to the size of the thing you're trying to print, things break down," said Subu Iyer, an IBM distinguished engineer. The challenge is to use a light wavelength of 193 nanometers because "extreme ultraviolet" radiation is still impractical.
"In straightforward physics (22nm) is kind of a tall order," said Iyer. IBM's new computational-intensive method takes the circuits that designers lay out and transforms them into a pattern on the mask that allows IBM to print the 22-nanometer features with 193-nanometer light, he said.
"There's a tremendous amount of computation involved in taking that design data and converting it to a mask which will illuminate with the right kind of illumination," Iyer said. "We build very fast computers. So, it's a matter of taking advantage of these very high-performance computers and doing these computationally intensive things."