The future of silicon chips

Published Tuesday 23rd October, 2018

Even the least tech-minded layperson has a vague understanding of the role silicon chips have in computing, but what they probably don't know is that the future of silicon is in doubt...

At Daletech, we're fascinated to watch the developments in chip design as this new era for silicon affects how our company will build printed circuit boards in the future, so let's take a look at some of the crucial questions facing chip designers now.

Is Moore's Law regarding silicon chips at an end?

Intel co-founder, Gordon Moore, predicted in 1965 that the number of transistors on a CPU will double every two years, and while this 'law' isn't particularly popular among technicians, it serves to illustrate the problem facing modern chip designers. In a finite space, it's impossible to double the number of transistors and, therefore, power indefinitely, without creating atomic particle size transistors.

Moore's Law, or the application of it to power increases in a chip, is certainly slowing down as we begin to reach the limits of silicon, but does that mean that the death march is playing for silicon chips?

Is silicon dead in the water?

The short answer is no... not, at least, for a couple of decades, but as we make more demands for greater agility and power, silicon will have to adapt. On a larger scale, Moore's Law can be extended by cold computing - essentially, reducing the temperature in which computers operate in order to increase efficiency - and we're seeing some interesting advances in sea and liquid nitrogen-cooled systems (like Microsoft's Project Natick off the coast of the Orkney Islands), but whether these can be applied to consumer tech is unclear.

It may be that silicon can play a role in advances in quantum computing, as shown by the exciting work done at Bristol University by Dr. Xiaogang Qiang, who engineered a silicon chip that guides photons along optical tracks in order to encode what he called 'qubits' - quantum bits of information. It's very early in the process though, as it can currently only work on two qubits, but leading experts in the field think that silicon has merit for this technology because there's so much legacy development to work with.

What might take over from silicon in the future as the need for more power increases?

Silicon is obviously a great conductor, but it may be that it's easier to increase speed in future chips by using more conductive materials. We're already seeing compound semiconductors using gallium and nitrogen to form gallium nitride - a compound that conducts electrons more than 1000 times more efficiently than silicon, and will allow semiconductors to be up to 100 times faster than silicon ones - and these will soon be used in 5G and 6G phones, electric vehicles, and other IoT-enabled technology.

These new chips are unlikely to completely replace silicone for a long time yet, but used in conjunction they're going to be part of the new world of ultra-speed electronics.

So it looks like silicon is definitely here to stay for now, and nobody is entirely sure what the future holds for the silicon chip, but whatever happens, we'll be right at the forefront of this emerging technology.

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