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in 1965, Intel Co-Founder and CEO Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors packed within an integrated circuit would double every two years. The prediction—touted as Moore’s Law—was so accurate that it had become the foundation by which the semiconductor industry was built upon. For decades, the semiconductor industry focused on developing technologies around increasing computing power. This objective was accomplished by integrating as many transistors within a single chip. Today, as in the case of smartphones, an iPhone holds billions of transistors capable of supporting a myriad of processes and applications—thus, leaving tremendous computing power in our hands.

a photo of a semiconductor industry engineer holding up a tiny chip used in material science and engineering
The semiconductor industry is working on solving the transistor riddle.

The Shrinking Transistor and the End of Moore’s Law

While the industry has developed innovations that made electronics and computing smaller, accessible, and faster, experts say that Moore’s Law is approaching its end. In fact, Intel has acknowledged the challenges of keeping up with Moore’s Law.

Part of the challenge is the limitations around material science and engineering required in the fabrication of transistors. Transistors—tiny electrical switches, usually made of semiconductor materials like silicon and germanium—are the building blocks electronics. The modern transistor has become so small that it has shrunk to 45 nanometers in size. However, with the world’s existing material science and engineering, the semiconductor industry is getting close to the physical limit of how small the transistor can be.

Along with other challenges such as the increasing complexity of processes and the Internet of Things, the semiconductor industry is working on solving the transistor riddle. Indeed, industry leaders and experts are compelled to respond to the call of the times.

a photo quote of Gordon Moore in relation to the semiconductor industry and material science and engineering
Gordon Moore shares his perspective about failures in the context of engineering.

Industry Innovations on Material Science and Engineering in the Semiconductor Industry

  • While silicon is an abundant semiconductor material, it has material limitations, especially with converting light into an electrical signal. Experts in the field have found a way to use optical rays in sending data instead of electrical signals. By way of silicon photonics, laser and silicon technology were combined. Chips achieve optimal performance through higher bandwidth and transfer of data at lightning speed. Companies leading the material science and engineering of silicon photonics are STMicroelectronics, CISCO, Luxtera, Mellanox, and Intel.
  • Going beyond Silicon has been at the core of most innovations in the semiconductor industry. Tapping on material science and engineering, researchers have been developing electronics using other materials, such as graphene, phosphorus, and tin. Samsung, Apple, and LG Electronics are some of the companies developing technologies around these alternatives.
  • Carbon Nanotubes (CNT) is fast becoming a significant technology in the market of sensors, flexible displays, and touch screen. CNTs also display huge potential for energy conversion devices such as batteries, fuel cells, and harvesters. In the semiconductor discipline, carbon nanotube technology has found its way in Nantero’s NRAM® technology (nonvolatile random access memory). Nantero is the first company to develop a semiconductor product using CNT technology.
a photo of the words "carbon nanotubes" surrounded by actual nanotubes used in the semiconductor industry and material science and engineering
Carbon Nanotubes (CNT) is fast becoming a significant technology in the market of sensors, flexible displays, and touch screen.

Other Bold Innovations in the Semiconductor Industry

  • Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography or EUVL is next-generation technology that allows advanced computer circuit printing. With a wavelength of 13.5 nm, EUVL is a cutting-edge technology that allows printing of features 14 times smaller without compromising performance. Currently, ASML is the sole vendor of EUVL systems within the semiconductor industry.
  • Neuromorphic chips mimic the human brain through densely-packed transistors. By sending synaptic-like signals within a network of transistors, neuromorphic chips achieve seamless connectivity. With this level of connectivity, neuromorphic chips can combine data storage, calculation, and communication, thereby increasing computing power and capabilities. Neuromorphic computing is a growing market with sophisticated requirements.
  • Molecular electronics is an exciting field of research being tapped by the semiconductor industry. The field includes the fabrication of electronic components using the molecular building blocks of carbon. The application of molecular electronics or organic electronics is already being used in flexible lights (OLEDs) and flexible displays. FlexEnable is currently working on various prototypes of flexible display.
a photo quote of Alvin Toffler in relation to the semiconductor industry and material science and engineering
Alvin Toffler talks about an organic computer in the context of the semiconductor industry.

Beyond Material Science and Engineering and the Semiconductor Industry

The role of the semiconductor industry has been pivotal in the advancement of computing technologies. The changes that have resulted may have been incremental, but the industry has ushered in the modern era of computing—that is, the age of personal, mobile and hyper-connected computing.

Nevertheless, the semiconductor industry is a developing story. Currently, we are getting a glimpse of the groundbreaking technologies of the future, such as wearable technology, robotics, nanotechnology, and augmented reality. Truly, with all these technologies in the pipeline, today is an exciting time to be alive.

For more stories on Bold Business’ series on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, check out these articles on Virtual and Augmented Reality in the Health Care SectorIoT in Construction,  Nanotechnology Applications in Manufacturing, and 3D Printing And Additive Manufacturing Technologies.

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