TSMC – the Taiwanese company that makes the heart of Apple iPhones – has just announced that research and development of 2-nanometer chips – processors that have brought us closer to the cutting edge of the laws of physics have already begun.
Until now, just when Moore’s Law looked like it was going to die – the observation by Intel founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors in a processor doubles every two years – in the hands of the laws that govern the electronic world, a company always came and made the most difficult yet.
And so far, only a few chips – such as the third-generation AMD Ryzen, Navi graphics cards, or Apple A13 Bionic chips – had managed to hit 7 nanometers, the theoretical limit for silicon chips before they started. It was giving problems like quantum tunneling, a physics phenomenon that makes electrons unable to stay within the channels and logic gates of a chip.
But the race to make chips more powerful and efficient doesn’t end at that limit. TSMC is already making the A14 Bionic, the chip that will be the heart of the new iPhone 12, with a 5-nanometer process, using alloys and new lithographic techniques – the process with which circuits are engraved on metal plates.
What has left us stunned is that – according to the specialized newspaper Digitimes – the Taiwanese have reported that they have already started with the development of the 2-nanometer process. This is something that is not supposed to come for many years. It was already known that the company began exploring 2 nanometers in 2019, but apparently, there is now a real path for development and manufacturing. It will take time, but it will come sooner than later.
The announcement is even more surprising because TSMC had previously said that its next step would be 3 nanometers.
Those of Samsung says that they will not reach 3 nanometers until 2021. Meanwhile, Intel says that they do not expect 3 nanometers until 2025. We do not know anything about AMD yet.
And although in theory, we know that we could squeeze even more current technology to reach beyond 2 nanometers – Intel claims they will have 1.4-nanometer chips by 2029 – what we do know for sure is that Moore’s Law is numbered. And this time for real.
Despite these momentary advances, chipmakers will soon need new technology to increase the processing capacity of our PCs and electronic devices at the same rate as in recent decades and, even more importantly, at least maintaining the same size and consumption.
If this change does not come soon, we will be doomed to slow growth in process speed sometime in the 21st century. That – or an inexorable increase in energy needs to increase the power of the processors at the same rate that we have been used to all these years. In either case, it will be a journey in the desert after so many years of a dizzying increase in power and reduction in consumption.
Although all this may seem abstract, reducing the size of the processor translates into fundamental advantages for everyone. If we now have chips capable of recording 4K video and enduring a day inside tiny machines, it is because of this race of sizes.
In an iPhone, for example, the CPU is the main consumer of battery after the screen. With each generation of the A series of processors, we have seen how the iPhone has increased in speed – to the point of destroying all Android phones without mercy – while its battery life was maintained or increased. And this is, in large part, thanks to the smaller chip size, which is always more efficient than the previous ones.
Chip reduction will continue to be critical not just for the next generation of phones, but also for new devices like augmented reality glasses and other wearables. That is why manufacturers like TSMC must continue to decrease the size of processors if we want to continue advancing not only in consumer electronics but in other fields such as cybernetics, medicine, or space exploration.