Modern society runs on microchips. Everywhere you look, from healthcare to the automobile industry, these tiny assets are driving our world forward. And they're only getting smaller. As technology evolves, microchips are becoming not only more compact but also more powerful and efficient than ever before.
In this article, we explore the fascinating topic of microchip miniaturisation and the trajectory it's taking us on.
Understanding the role of the microchip
Before we dive into the world of miniaturisation, let's first understand what a microchip actually is. In simple terms, a microchip (also known as an integrated circuit or IC) is a tiny electronic device made up of various components, including transistors, resistors, and capacitors. Components are fused onto a small piece of silicon and then connected by conductive wires to create an electronic circuit.
Microchips are essential to the proper functioning of a range of electronic devices, from computers and smartphones to cars and medical equipment. They serve as the ‘brain’ or central processing unit (CPU) of these systems, enabling them to store the data and perform the calculations we rely on them for every day.
Moore's Law estimates that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years.
Why Miniaturise Microchips?
As technology continues to advance and our reliance on electronic devices grows, the demand for smaller and more powerful microchips is also increasing. Take a look at three of the main factors behind the drive for miniaturisation below.
Smaller microchips have the potential to be more energy-efficient than larger ones, as they require less power to operate. That comes in handy in battery-operated devices that need to conserve energy to last longer.
As devices become smaller and more compact, there is a need for their internal components to also decrease in size. By making microchips smaller, manufacturers can save valuable space within the device, allowing for sleeker and more portable designs. This is particularly important for devices like smartphones and wearable technology, where size and weight are key usability factors.
Electrical signals don't need to travel as far in a miniaturised microchip, which reduces latency and allows for faster processing speeds. We've seen massive leaps forward in this regard over the years - to the point where today's microchips can handle billions of instructions per second.
What is Moore's Law?
Much of the past, present, and future development of microchips centres around a concept called Moore's Law. Named after Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, this concept estimates that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. That's been mostly true to date; microchips have both shrunk in size and increased in processing power at a remarkable rate.
But like everything, there are limits to Moore's Law. As transistors continue to shrink, they will eventually reach a point where quantum effects begin to interfere with their function. This is widely referred to as the "end of Moore's Law", and it has many experts in the field scratching their heads over where things might be headed next.
With five-nanometre transistors currently being mass-produced. This is an incredibly small scale; for perspective, a single piece of paper is approximately
75,000 nanometres thick
The state of microchip miniaturisation today
As it stands, microchips have not reached their point of absolute miniaturisation to invalidate Moore's Law. They are getting very close, however, with five-nanometre transistors currently being mass-produced. This is an incredibly small scale; for perspective, a single piece of paper is approximately 75,000 nanometres thick.
IBM's two-nanometre chip fits 50 billion transistors - each the size of roughly five atoms - into an even smaller package. There's already plenty of work being done to break that barrier with plans to roll one-nanometre semiconductors out into the mainstream by the 2030s.
That opens the door to unprecedented speed unlike anything we've experienced before. In fact, researchers have been trying to find a way to put everything into context. Experts believe they've found the maximum possible signal transmission speed we'll ever measure in microchips — one petahertz, or the equivalent of one million gigahertz.
Transforming the way microchips are built
We're well on our way to reaching the perceived limits of microchip miniaturisation. Moore's Law may have predicted that we would reach this point, but now the question is: how do we continue to improve and innovate in chip technology?
Manufacturing methods and equipment will be one of the biggest factors behind the development of one-nanometre semiconductors. New technologies such as extreme ultraviolet lithography and atomic layer deposition are paving the way for smaller, more precise chip designs. These methods allow for greater control over the placement and size of components on a microchip, leading to increased efficiency and performance.
We are seeing exciting progress in research and development, but it may be a while before consumers can see the benefits of these advancements in their everyday devices.
Three-dimensional chip stacking
Another expected game-changer in the development of one-nanometre chips is three-dimensional (3D) chip stacking. While traditional chips are built on a flat, two-dimensional surface, stacking multiple layers of circuitry on top of each other allows for more components to be packed into a smaller space. This leads to increased computing power and energy efficiency.
The challenge lies in bringing this all to the mainstream. While the potential capabilities of ultra-small microchips are exciting, the current cost and complexity of manufacturing them may make them difficult to experience on a large scale for quite some time. We are seeing exciting progress in research and development, but it may be a while before consumers can see the benefits of these advancements in their everyday devices.
Until then, the best thing anyone can do is to stay informed and keep an eye on the latest developments in nanotechnology. As we continue to push the limits of technology, one-nanometre chips may just be the beginning of a whole new era of computing. Who knows where this path will lead us in the future? The possibilities are truly endless.