In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore observed that the number of transistors (the basic building block of semiconductors) on the most advanced chips doubled roughly every 18 months. Remarkably, this exponential trend has continued for the past 50 years, with the number of transistors on a chip rising to several billion today.
The capabilities of semiconductors have roughly scaled with the number of transistors. In order to make this vast increase in transistor count possible, the size of transistors on a semiconductor chip has had to shrink drastically. In 1971, the node size, or the distance between two identical features on a chip, on the most advanced semiconductor chips was 10µm (10–5 meters, or about 1/10 the size of a human hair). In 2014, Intel is expected to commercially introduce the first chips with a node size of 14nm (1.4 * 10–8 meters)—almost 1,000 times thinner.
As the size of the electronic elements on a semiconductor shrink, the amount of power semiconductors consume shrinks, reducing the footprint of the device, boosting battery life for mobile devices, and reducing semiconductors’ environmental footprint. At the same time, the speed of the devices increases—and the cost prices per computation fall—making ever more sophisticated devices more affordable to the average consumer.
This exponential increase in the computational power of semiconductor is what powers the modern, digital world. No other tool or machine in our modern life comes close. In fact, if the airline industry dutifully followed Moore’s law, a flight from New York to Paris, which took seven hours and cost $900 in 1978, would by 2005 require one second and cost a penny.
The challenge of keeping up with Moore’s Law will continue to drive fundamental research and engineering opportunities well into the future. But will Moore’s Law hold up? And what will happen to our modern society if the speed of semiconductor development slows?
Some believe new technologies and advances in material sciences can overcome some of the physical challenges involved in developing the next generation of semiconductor devices. Others believe 3D design and innovative packaging and chip architecture will be the best route to drive continued semiconductor advances.
Either way, continued development of powerful semiconductors is critical to fuel innovations across a range of industries—and the future will be determined by the bright minds who take up careers in semiconductor research and development.