New Nanochip May Help Engineers Overcome Computing Limits Like Moore's Law

We may be about to witness the end of the semiconductor. 

by James Dennin

For the last several decades, the guidance set by Moore’s Law has served us pretty well. Since Intel co-founder Dr. Gordon Moore first observed in 1965 that the number of transistors engineers could squeeze onto a single microchip doubled every two years, the improvements to computing power have proceeded at a surprisingly consistent drumbeat.

These gains have reduced the size of computers from room-filling giants to smart tech that can not only fit in your pocket or be worn on your wrist, but also be squeezed into toasters, light fixtures, and doorbells.

The trend has proceeded so long, in fact, that researchers had started to worry that chip engineers were hitting a wall. IBM’s x86, unveiled earlier this year as the smallest computer ever, was already smaller than a grain of rice. How much smaller could incremental improvements really take us? With objectively decent laptops running for under $100, it seemed fair to wonder whether the revolution in personal computing had started to run its course, at least until now.

Researchers may have found a work-around to continue improving upon ever-smaller micro-chips. 


That’s according to a new paper from engineers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia who say that their new transistor can send electrical currents through thin air — as opposed to needing to route it through silicon — and which offers a proof-of-concept for how the next generation of hyper-sophisticated nano-chips could soon be built. Their findings were published November 16 in the most recent issue of Nano Letters.

The researchers managed to overcome a limitation faced by traditional transistors, which is that the electrons passing through traditional silicon transistors bump into each other, wasting energy and emitting heat. To solve the problem, researchers found a way to route electrical signals through narrow gaps of air, almost like a vacuum.

“Imagine walking on a densely crowded street in an effort to get from point A to B. The crowd slows your progress and drains your energy,” Sharath Sriram, an professor at RMIT focused on nanotechnology explains in a statement. “Traveling in a vacuum on the other hand is like an empty highway where you can drive faster with higher energy efficiency.”

To recreate a kind of vacuum, researchers needed to find a way to create a gap that was small enough to fit inside the transistor, but large enough to trick the electrons into passing through them without colliding and getting in one another’s way. They settled on a gap that’s tens of nanometers wide, about one one fifty-thousandth of the width of a strand of human hair. It’s an innovation the researchers say could supersede the need for semiconductors entirely, the mostly silicon-based tiny pieces of metal that are currently necessary in virtually all modern electronics.

The researchers also say their technology was designed with current manufacturing processes in mind, though also that it could help enable more futuristic technologies, for example aiding in the development of so-called “nano-satellites” that could one day monitor space.