Dec 12, 2019 07:35 AM EST
Silicon chips have done a great job of bolstering technology from rudimentary 8-bit programs to microprocessors that have made the modern smartphone more powerful than any of the computational equipment NASA used to bring Neil Armstrong to the moon.
As hardware such as transistors continued to decrease in size, it comes as no surprise that the technology became more accessible. Computers that only tech and engineering conglomerates had the money and space to hold grew smaller and faster. But while there are those still considering the traditional silicon chip capable of ushering a new age of quantum computers, experts warn of the technology’s rapidly approaching limit.
One of Intel’s founders, Gordon Moore, first observed the exponential rate of progress in semiconductor manufacturing. From his observations, silicon chips could fit twice the amount of transistors from the previous year, making the development of new technologies faster and more prevalent than the year before. This growth continues on for a shorter period of time.
Gradually, however, this phenomenon would stagnate as silicon chip hits the point where transistors can no longer be shrunk any more than it’s physically capable.
So the question for chip makers now is what new technology they could adapt.
The current approach to microprocessors most people are familiar with is binary; a string of 1s and 0s that determine whether an electrical current passes through a circuit. The on and off states are given computational value, and the ability of the silicon chip to have billions of transistors inside it switch between the on and off states quickly without loss determines how powerful and energy-efficient the microprocessor is.
The solution electronics firms look to is technology capable of greater computation using quantum computing, which theoretically allows computers to operate on and off states simultaneously.
Contenders for the next silicon chip range from tunneling transistors, spintronics, and carbon nanotubes. All of them being as experimental as the others, Intel suggests that some aspects of silicon transistors the industry has grown to expect might have to be sacrificed. Increased speed, for instance, would have to be set aside in favor of energy use.
Tunneling transistors, while attractive for quantum computing applications, operate using quantum mechanical properties that conventional transistors are unfortunately yet to be compatible with. Not to mention tunneling transistors are still very much in the research and development stage and have yet to trickle down to commercial markets.
Spintronic devices, on the one hand, are showing low-power consumption next to silicon chips as well as better chances of market availability. The caveat though is that while this technology has the potential for more powerful computations and energy conservation, it doesn’t quite go through data as fast as silicon transistors.
Carbon nanotubes field-effect transistors (also referred to as CNFETs) are also making rounds within the microprocessor industry. The emerging nanotechnology uses the technique of utilizing carbon nanotubes as the channel material instead of bulk silicon. CNFET characteristics theoretically present carrier velocity and transconductance higher than silicon chips, making it more efficient in nano circuitry. However, it still has limited power handling and is difficult to manufacture without any defects.
As a whole, chipmakers are still in a race to develop and patent commercially viable alternatives to silicon chips. But once they get past the physical limitations of quantum mechanics, technology in the next decade should prove to be interesting.
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