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The Race to Develop Faster, Smaller, More Energy-Efficient Transistors

The tiny electrical switches that drive industrial and consumer devices are pushing the limits of Moore’s Law. What’s next?

If researchers and scientists have their way, the electronic components of the future could soon incorporate a state-of-the-art transistor that pushes Moore’s Law to its limits. As the tiny electrical switches that drive most industrial and consumer devices and electronics, ever-shrinking transistors play a critical role in making our world tick and in the launch of innovative new products.

At the recent IEDM 2016 conference, Purdue University researchers showcased a range of concepts and technologies that foreshadow the future of the transistor and potentially the semiconductor industry. Those concepts include innovations to extend the performance of today's silicon-based transistors, along with entirely new types of nanoelectronic devices to complement and potentially replace conventional technology in future computers.

"These advancements were enabled by making the basic transistors in computer chips ever smaller. Today the critical dimensions in these devices are just some 60 atoms thick, and further device size reductions will certainly stop at small atomic dimensions.,”  says Gerhard Klimeck, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of Purdue's Network for Computational Nanotechnology.

According to Purdue researchers, new technologies will help the semiconductor industry keep pace with Moore's Law. Formulated by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, the law states that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles about every two years, resulting in  faster, smaller, and cheaper semiconductors.

But many researchers aren’t so sure that Moore’s Law has much life left. “We’re getting very close to the limit of how small we can make a transistor,” writes Arnab Hazari, a Ph. D. student at the University of Michigan, in the Conversation.

Is Light the Answer?

“At present, transistors use electrical signals—electrons moving from one place to another—to communicate,” writes Hazari. “But if we could use light, made up of photons, instead of electricity, we could make transistors even faster.”

Researchers such as Hazari are working on the integration of photons—light particles—into electronics to boost their performance. Integrating light-based processing with existing chips could translate into smaller transistors and, as a result, even smaller and more powerful electronic components.

The next big thing—the introduction of photonic chips— is still years away.

“A key challenge,” writes Hazari, “is making sure the new light-based chips can work with all the existing electronic chips,” says Hazari. “If we’re able to figure out how to do it—or even to use light-based transistors to enhance electronic ones—we could see significant performance improvement.”

Many procurement professionals may well see the end of Moore’s Law for silicon chips during their careers, and witness the introduction of photonics chips on their distributors’ line cards.


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