The end of Silicon-based technology may be closer than you think

by Matt Klassen on April 22, 2015

Silicon is the lifeblood of the modern computing industry, responsible for everything in our increasingly connected existence from PCs to smartphones to more advanced self-driving cars and the like. In fact the Mecca of the technological world even bears its name,Silicon Valley, evidence that atomic element number 14 is vital to our continued technological progress.

But if analysts are correct, the exponential growth of computing technology will not be able to continue along its current course for long, as the current method for producing everything from PCs to smartphones to self-driving cars will come to a grinding halt in about a decade.

It’s at that time that engineers will have hit the physical limits of cramming microscopic circuitry onto conventional silicon chips, the foundation of every modern computing device. As CNET’s Stephen Shankland notes, unfortunately “That means the iPhone 11 you get in 2024 will be about as good as it gets.”

Fear not, though, as the chip industry is on the case, exploring both ways of refining today’s silicon technology to bleed every ounce of usefulness out of it and more exotic elements and compounds that might be able to be deployed in the increasing process of technological miniaturisation. That means, however, that in about a decade the name “Silicon Valley” may be obsolete, replaced perhaps with “Graphene Valley” or something equally esoteric.

Think of the ongoing miniaturization of technology as folding a piece of paper. As the number of folds increase it becomes that much more difficult to continue folding to a point where it’s simply physically impossible to fold the paper anymore. For silicon based chips, not only is increased miniaturisation difficult, with each successive step it becomes exponentially more expensive as well. But that said, it can only go so far.

It was only a measly few decades ago that the transistor first appeared on the technology scene, revolutionizing portable technology as we know it. Some of the first transistor radios, it should be noted, utilized 4 or 5 transistors, while modern smartphones pack several billion transistors into a much smaller space. Such exponential technological advance through ongoing miniaturisation has allowed our technological devices to get progressively smaller while doing significantly more, but, as engineers say, there will come a time when the current miniaturisation process will hit a wall, when transistors are no larger than an atom and they simply can’t get any smaller.

It is at this time, analysts warn, that technological progress with either stall in its unabated journey forward or have to deviate from its current silicon-based path, finding new and exotic ways of advancing technology.

“It’s the equivalent of a turn, not a step off a cliff,” said Mike Mayberry, manager of Intel’s components research. Mayberry is responsible for charting his firm’s path into the future, making him well aware of the challenges that await the chip industry in a few short years.

So where does the tech industry go from here? While chip-makers are already working on interim solutions like chip stacking, where transistors are stacked on top of each other on a traditional silicon chip, company’s like IBM and others are researching new and improved materials. As Shankland explains, “Graphene, for example, is a sheet of carbon atoms just a single atomic layer think, arranged in a hexagonal array that looks like a chickenwire fencing. Another is carbon nanotubes, which are like tiny straws made from rolled up graphene sheets.”

Both these solutions could radically improve processor speeds and help push miniaturization forward, but they’re simply the tip of the iceberg, as advances in quantum computing and sub-atomic level processing have the potential to change the way we think about, well, everything, not just computing. Suffice it to say, the era of silicon is quickly coming to an end and it’ll be interesting to see how the tech industry responds to that challenge in the coming years.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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