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Chipmaking: When Silicon Leaves the Valley

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Artist's rendition of a chip in action.

Researchers are exploring new ways to make chips.

Credit: Shutterstock

Researchers are pursuing new ways of making chips, as it grows increasingly difficult to fit more transistors onto a silicon wafer. Today's chips are so small that shrinking them is becoming difficult and costly, without offering as many benefits as in the past. The small size of current chips is sometimes damaging their functionality and restricting the extra performance they can offer.

One new concept is an upright transistor, with the channel rising from the rest of the circuit to prevent the current from leaking as it does with traditional designs. The next step could be a gate-all-around transistor, with the channel surrounded on all four sides so that it is entirely encased within the gate.

In addition to design changes, new materials such as III-V elements, closely related to silicon, could enable continued chipmaking improvements. Some of these materials can conduct current more efficiently than silicon, allowing lower voltages that would reduce power consumption and extend battery life. Many researchers favor carbon in the form of nanotubes or flat sheets called graphene.

However, challenges exist with the new approaches and the economic case for putting them into production remains unclear. Some experts believe new technologies will be integrated gradually in the form of hybrid chips with both standard silicon transistors and new devices.

From The Economist
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Abstracts Copyright © 2014 Information Inc., Bethesda, Maryland, USA


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