Straining Moore...


Topics: Applied Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, Materials Science, Nanotechnology, Quantum Mechanics, Semiconductor Technology

Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel who died earlier this year, is famous for forecasting a continuous rise in the density of transistors that we can pack onto semiconductor chips. James McKenzie looks at how “Moore’s law” is still going strong after almost six decades but warns that further progress is becoming harder and ever more expensive to sustain.

When the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) announced last year that it was planning to build a new factory to produce integrated circuits, it wasn’t just the eye-watering $33bn price tag that caught my eye. What also struck me is that the plant, set to open in 2025 in the city of Hsinchu, will make the world’s first “2-nanometer” chips. Smaller, faster, and up to 30% more efficient than any microchip that has come before, TSMC’s chips will be sold to the likes of Apple – the company’s biggest customer – powering everything from smartphones to laptops.

But our ability to build such tiny, powerful chips shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the engineer Gordon Moore – who died on 24 March this year, aged 94 – famously predicted in 1965 that the number of transistors we can squeeze onto an integrated circuit ought to double yearly. Writing for the magazine Electronics (38 114), Moore reckoned that by 1975 it should be possible to fit a quarter of a million components onto a single silicon chip with an area of one square inch (6.25 cm2).

Moore’s prediction, which he later said was simply a “wild extrapolation”, held true, although, in 1975, he revised his forecast, predicting that chip densities would double every two years rather than every year. What thereafter became known as “Moore’s law” proved amazingly accurate, as the ability to pack ever more transistors into a tiny space underpinned the almost non-stop growth of the consumer electronics industry. In truth, it was never an established scientific “law” but more a description of how things had developed in the past as well as a roadmap that the semiconductor industry imposed on itself, driving future development.

Moore's law: further progress will push hard on the boundaries of physics and economics, James McKenzie, Physics World

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