The search for the new silicon
In 1965, an errant US chemist made a prediction about the future of the computing industry. Gordon Moore, who had earned his PhD in physical chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, turned his attention to electronics and founded a company that made some of the first silicon chips. His prediction: that the number of components it was possible to cram onto a computer chip would double every year as the components became teenier and tinier, yielding rocketing computing power. Although Moore later revised his prediction to every two years, it held true. Until round about now. Intel can squeeze 100 million transistors, which have shrunk to nano-proportions, onto each square millimetre of its chips, but the industry’s ability to keep up with Moore’s Law – as it’s widely known – is starting to flag.
The quest to build ever more powerful computers gets us into the realms of quantum computing and adding extra dimensions to chip architectures. But in the meantime, could using alternative materials help to prolong Moore’s Law? Right now, materials scientists are trying to help chip designers take transistors to their physical limits by replacing the very substance that the computer chip industry is built on – silicon. As Eric Pop, an electrical engineer and materials scientist at Stanford University in the US sees it, those people who are saying Moore’s Law is dead are too stuck on silicon. ‘What they’re referring to is the fact that it’s very, very difficult to shrink silicon circuits,’ he says. ’But if you switch from silicon to a material that is [a few] atoms thick, at least for certain parts of the chip, you could make those circuits 10 times smaller.’