IBM claims to have developed the world's smallest working silicon transistor.

At six nanometres in length (a nanometre — nm — is one billionth of a metre), the new transistor is at least 10 times smaller than state-of-the-art transistors in production today.

IBM said it will present details of its research breakthrough at the annual IEDM (International Electron Devices Meeting), which opens today in San Francisco.

The ability to build transistors at these dimensions could allow semiconductor manufacturers to put 100 times more transistors into a computer chip than is currently possible, IBM said.

With the breakthrough, IBM claims to have pushed the limits of transistor scaling, or the reduction of the gate length (the size of the switch that turns transistors on and off), still further. Reduced gate lengths improve the performance and speed of chips as well as lowering their manufacturing cost and power consumption, the company said.

The IT industry has been scaling down transistors for the past 30 years to meet demand for smaller and more intelligent electronic devices. In its 2001 International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, the Consortium of International Semiconductor Companies projected that transistors will have to be smaller than nine nanometres by 2016 in order to continue the performance trend.

Scaling to this new molecular level demonstrates that the basic transistor concept still functions at this size, IBM said, adding that additional research will be necessary for transistors to achieve high performance while simultaneously managing power density and heat dissipation.

IBM was able to reduce the thickness of silicon on SOI (silicon-on-insulator) wafers. The silicon body of its new 6nm gate transistor is only 4nm to 8nm thick, with proper turn-on and turn-off behaviour.

IBM made these ultra-thin silicon channel devices and circuits on bonded SOI wafers using halo implants and 248nm-wavelength lithography.