January 10, 2014

Moore’s Law in a Post-Silicon Era

Tiffany Trader
circuit graphic

When it comes to ushering in the next-generation of computer chips, Moore’s Law is not dead, it is just evolving, so say some of the more optimistic scientists and engineers cited in a recent New York Times article from science writer John Markoff. Despite numerous proclamations foretelling Moore’s Law’s imminent demise, there are those who remain confident that a new class of nanomaterials will save the day. Materials designers are investigating using metals, ceramics, polymeric and composites that organize via “bottom up” rather than “top down” processes as the substrate for future circuits.

Moore’s Law refers to the observation put forth by Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore in 1965 that stated that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would double approximately every 24 months. The prediction has lasted through five decades of faster and cheaper CPUs, but it’s run out of steam as silicon-based circuits near the limits of miniaturization. While future process shrinks are possible and 3D stacking will buy some additional time, pundits say these tweaks are not economically feasible past a certain point. In fact, the high cost of building next-generation semiconductor factories has been called “Moore’s Second Law.”

With the advantages of Moore’s Law-type progress hanging in the balance, semiconductor designers have been forced to innovate. A lot of the buzz lately is around “self assembling” circuits. Industry researchers are experimenting with new techniques that combine nanowires with conventional manufacturing processes, setting the stage for a new class of computer chips, that continues the price/performance progression established by Moore’s law. Manufacturers are hopeful that such bottoms-up self-assembly techniques will eliminate the need to invest in costly new lithographic machines.

“The key is self assembly,” said Chandrasekhar Narayan, director of science and technology at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. “You use the forces of nature to do your work for you. Brute force doesn’t work any more; you have to work with nature and let things happen by themselves.”

Moving from silicon-based manufacturing to an era of computational materials will require a concerted effort and a lot of computing power to test candidate materials. Markoff notes that materials researchers in Silicon Valley are using powerful new supercomputers to advance the science. “While semiconductor chips are no longer made here,” says Markoff referring to Silicon Valley, “the new classes of materials being developed in this area are likely to reshape the computing world over the next decade.”