TSMC races for chip supremacy with new A16 process for AI-ready future

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the leading flagbearer in chip manufacturing, has unveiled a new technology called A16. This unveil marks a significant step towards the production of its new ultra-advanced 1.6-nanometer (nm) chips by 2026. Although the naming sounds quite similar to Apple’s A16 processor found on the iPhone 15 series and iPhone 14 Pro, which itself is built by TSMC, this is not to be confused.

The announcement underscores TSMC’s commitment to maintaining its dominance in the chipmaking race, which will be powering the next generation of artificial intelligence (AI) advancements across mobile and personal devices, putting it against the likes of Nvidia, Intel, and Samsung which are other players of the fabrication and AI chip industry.

A16: Nanosheet transistors with backside power delivery

During the North America Technology Symposium held in Santa Clara, California, TSMC showcased its A16 technology. This innovative process revolves around nanosheet transistors, a novel approach that promises “greatly improved logic density and performance” compared to existing technologies. Notably, A16 employs a revolutionary “backside power rail” system. 

Unlike traditional chip designs where power flows from the top down, this method delivers power from the bottom. This innovative approach eliminates the need for intricate internal wiring, leading to significant improvements in energy efficiency.

Backside Power Delivery

Interestingly, Intel preempted TSMC in announcing the utilization of backside power delivery. Intel plans to integrate this technology into its 20A and 18A (2nm and 1.8nm) chipmaking processes as early as 2025. 

The strategic move highlights the growing importance of efficiency in the ever-competitive chipmaking landscape. Intel has further bolstered its position by unveiling its 14A (1.4nm) technology earlier this year. Meanwhile, Samsung has set its sights on achieving mass production of 1.4nm chips by 2027.

Beyond nanometers: The rise of nanosheet transistors

Traditionally, the nanometer size on a chip has been directly linked to its performance and advancement. A smaller nanometer value indicated a denser packing of transistors, leading to significant performance gains. However, with the constant miniaturization of transistors, this approach has reached its physical limitations. Modern chipmaking necessitates not only a reduction in transistor size but also a complete restructuring of their design. 

This is where nanosheet transistors come into play. Starting from the 2nm node, both TSMC and Intel have embraced the gate-all-around, or nanosheet, transistor structure. Samsung has already begun experimenting with this technology in its 3nm chips. Notably, Apple’s latest top-tier iPhone Pro utilizes TSMC’s 3nm technology, showcasing the increasing demand for advanced chips to power cutting-edge devices.

While the race for smaller transistors continues, the reality is that only a select few companies – TSMC, Intel, and Samsung – can afford the immense resources required to push the boundaries of chip production. Recognizing this, the U.S. government has awarded these three giants a collective $21.5 billion under the CHIPS Act. This initiative aims to incentivize the production of the most advanced chips within American borders.

TSMC’s leading change

As reported by Nikkei Asia, TSMC currently reigns supreme in the foundry service market, holding a staggering market share of nearly 60% according to Counterpoint, a technology market research firm. Samsung trails behind with a 13% share, followed by Taiwan’s UMC at 6%. Notably, Intel, traditionally focused on in-house chip production, has entered the foundry arena, aiming to become the number two player by 2030. This aggressive move further intensifies the competition within the chipmaking industry.

With its focus on nanosheet transistors and innovative backside power delivery, A16 paves the way for the production of 1.6nm chips by 2026. Surely, this advancement is crucial not only for maintaining global technological leadership but also for fueling the development of cutting-edge AI applications that will shape the future. As the competition intensifies, the collaboration between governments and leading chipmakers will be critical in ensuring a secure and sustainable future in this ever-evolving domain.

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