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IBM Just Created the World’s Smallest, Most Powerful Chip; Here’s Why You Should Care

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
Yahoo Tech

You might not think about computer chips very often — if at all — but they power everything from your smartphone and TV to the freakin’ International Space Station. So it goes without saying that they are among the most important pieces of technology we have.

That’s why it’s news when IBM announces — as it just did — that it has created one of the most advanced processors on the planet, with parts that are barely bigger than a strand of DNA. The chip will reportedly be four times as powerful as today’s top-shelf processors, at roughly half the size.

Here’s what we know about the latest superchip and what it’ll mean to you.

Wait, what’s the big deal about a computer chip?

Fair question. Computer chips are basically super-small electronic brains that perform the millions of calculations per second that are required when you browse Facebook or play Candy Crush.

They do this by passing electrical currents between tiny things called transistors. And, to simplify things terrifically, the smaller the transistors, the better the chip, the more calculations it can do, and the better games and apps will run on it.

OK, what’s the deal with this new chip?

At the most basic level, IBM’s processor, which it worked on with GlobalFoundries, Samsung, and the State University of New York (SUNY), has far smaller transistors than any other processor on the planet. That means that when the chip eventually appears in future smartphones, computers, and other pieces of technology, those gadgets will be faster and more energy-efficient.

But how will it make things faster?

OK, so remember those transistors we mentioned? Your average processor can pack billions of them onto something the size of your fingernail.

Today’s best chips have transistors that measure about 14 nanometers. (A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.) The next generation of chips that are coming (but aren’t in use yet) will have 10-nanometer transistors. IBM’s new chip, however, has transistors that measure just 7 nanometers.

That means the company can pack even more of them onto a chip. By increasing the number of transistors and shrinking the distance between them, IBM is able to reduce the amount of time it takes for electrical currents to move between them. That makes for faster chips.

Wait, did you say 7 nanometers?!

Oh, yeah. This stuff is super-small. We’re talking microscopic. To put things into perspective, a single strand of DNA has a diameter of 2.5 nanometers.

Why didn’t they make these things this small before?

Well, that’s the thing. It wasn’t exactly possible. The problem has been that the silicon that current computer chips are made of doesn’t quite do the job in objects smaller than 10 nanometers. So IBM had to invent two new types of technology before it could make these chips.

Instead of regular silicon, it used something called silicon germanium, as well as a process called extreme ultraviolet lithography. You don’t have to worry about what all of that means. All you have to know is that this is some ridiculously high-tech manufacturing, and it’s the reason the new chip is possible.

Gotcha! So super-tiny transistors on a chip mean more power and better battery life for my gadgets?

Yep!

And this new chip and its even smaller transistors mean that devices will get even more powerful and efficient?

You got it. But it’s not just that your toys will be able to play cooler games or run more apps at the same time. This tech could also lead to things like incredibly sophisticated cloud-computing systems and new services and gadgets we haven’t even thought of yet.

In other words, it could change the world of technology.

Sounds incredible! When will it be available?

Well, the manufacturing processes that IBM used to create its chip aren’t exactly ready for mass production. But when chipmakers get the kinks in that process ironed out, we could start seeing chips like IBM’s in a matter of years.

That sounds pretty sweet. I can’t wait!

Neither can we.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+.