IBM researchers have recently reported that they have achieved a breakthrough in chip-making technology using carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes are single atomic sheets of carbon rolled up into a tube, and the scientists have been able to place over 10,000 of these on a single chip using standard manufacturing processes.
The researchers said in the journal Nature Nanotechnology that they hope to perfect the technology by the end of this decade. The technology will dramatically raise the speed of chips and the number of transistors they contain.
Chipmakers have been under increasing pressure to pack more processing power into smaller chips that sip rather than gulp power. Over the years, the chip industry's development has tracked what is called the Moore's Law. The law, attributed to Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore, postulates that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles about every two years.
So far, the chip manufacturers have achieved this reduction in size and power consumption by shrinking the space between the transistors, gates and other components that go into a chip. But, every new advancement has thrown up more engineering and manufacturing challenges. In turn, these have pushed up the cost of the chips by raising the cost of the tools to make them and the number of defective chips. Chip manufacturing plants now cost billions of dollars, making them expensive to build and retool.
The challenges to reducing the size of the chips are two-fold. As component sizes shrink it becomes difficult to dissipate the heat generated. The concentrated heat can become so high as to melt the chip itself.
The second problem is that chipmakers are coming up against the limits of Newtonian physics. At such small dimensions, the rules of quantum physics take over, making it difficult to keep the chip's components working as they are intended to.
The pace of improvements in chip technology has a direct impact on the fate of the innovations sweeping the world of technology. Today's battery technology has made mobile devices prisoners to power points; more power-efficient chips are needed to make them truly mobile. Big Data analytics and cloud computing also require faster and cheaper storage chips. The need to make data centers greener calls for even more power-efficient processors and storage chips.
Chip makers have experimented with newer technologies and innovated -- chips with multiple capabilities and 3D chip-making technology -- to work around the limits of physics. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently reported a new technique to make 12 nanometer chips.
Still the way forward beyond the next two to three generations of silicon chips was rather unclear. IBM's carbon nanotube technology has cleared the fog and promises to keep the innovations in technology on track for years to come, and save Moore' Law from becoming an anachronism.