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For more than a decade, engineers have been fretting that they are running out of tricks for continuing to shrink silicon transistors. Intel’s latest chips have transistors with features as small as 14 nanometers, but it is unclear how the industry can keep scaling down silicon transistors much further or what might replace them.

A project at IBM is now aiming to have transistors built using carbon nanotubes ready to take over from silicon transistors soon after 2020. According to the semiconductor industry’s roadmap, transistors at that point must have features as small as five nanometers to keep up with the continuous miniaturization of computer chips. “That’s where silicon scaling runs out of steam, and there really is nothing else,” says Wilfried Haensch, who leads the company’s nanotube project at the company’s T.J. Watson research center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Nanotubes are the only technology that looks capable of keeping the advance of computer power from slowing down, by offering a practical way to make both smaller and faster transistors, he says.

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