Andy Pye asks whether new materials could provide the answer to the problem of momentum loss in Moore’s law.
In 1965, Gordon Moore, founder of Intel, predicted that throughout the future of technological hardware, the number of transistors per square inch of integrated circuits will double approximately every two years (Moore’s Law).
Moore’s prediction continued to hold true for over half a century – the increase in the number of transistors on integrated circuits was made possible by shrinking the size of the transistor. Moore’s Law is why each generation of iPhone is thinner, yet more powerful than the previous. The iPhone 6 holds more processing power than was used by NASA at the time of the 1969 moon landing. But for how much longer can this rate of growth last?
Jonathan Wilkins of industrial automation supplier European Automation believes that Moore’s Law is losing its momentum. Recently, Intel announced that for 2016, it will continue to use the current 14nm processes – as opposed to the smaller 10nm chips we were all expecting. Apple partner TSMC will be mass producing 10nm chips by early 2017. Clearly, tech companies are struggling to keep up with Moore’s Law. The 10nm size chips can still be successfully manufactured by using pure silicon. However, shrinking manufacturing beyond this will require the use of different materials.
IBM recently announced a breakthrough 7nm processor. This incredibly thin chip has been made possible by using a silicon-germanium alloy (SiGe). This new material improves electron mobility and enables faster switching transistors with lower power requirements, but will not be ready for mass production until 2017.
What could work better? The key is to find materials that can quickly switch from conducting to insulating states. A team at UCLA has made extremely fast transistors from graphene. Meanwhile a group at Stanford has reported that it can flip the electrical on/off switch in magnetite in one trillionth of a second — thousands of times faster than transistors now in use.
Metamaterials are made up of tiny arrays of microscopic elements such as metal rings or rods that can bend, scatter or transmit electromagnetic radiation in ways that no natural material can. The elements must be smaller than the wavelength of the radiation they are intended to manipulate: a net so small it can deflect a wave of light. By tweaking the size and composition of the gaps in the net, you can not only deflect light or allow it to pass through but also alter its trajectory, change its colour or even make it disappear.
The era of Moore’s Law may be coming to a natural end, but technologists argue that the concept is simply changing form. Soon, by using new technology and new materials, future processors could even break the expectations set by Moore’s Law.