IdeaBig ideas are getting harder and harder to find, and innovations have become increasingly massive and costly endeavors, according to new research.

As a result, tremendous continual increases in research and development will be needed to sustain even today’s low rate of economic growth.

This means modern-day inventors—even those in the league of Steve Jobs—will have a tough time measuring up to the productivity of the Thomas Edisons of the past.

Nicholas Bloom, senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and coauthor of a paper released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, contends that so many game-changing inventions have appeared since World War II that it’s become increasingly difficult to come up with the next big idea.

“The thought now of somebody inventing something as revolutionary as the locomotive on their own is inconceivable,” Bloom says.

“It’s certainly true if you go back one or two hundred years, like when Edison invented the light bulb,” he says. “It’s a massive piece of technology and one guy basically invented it. But while we think of Steve Jobs and the iPhone, it was a team of dozens of people who created the iPhone.”

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The Future of Electronics is Light

By: Arnab Hazari, University of Michigan

ElectronicsFor the past four decades, the electronics industry has been driven by what is called “Moore’s Law,” which is not a law but more an axiom or observation. Effectively, it suggests that the electronic devices double in speed and capability about every two years. And indeed, every year tech companies come up with new, faster, smarter and better gadgets.

Specifically, Moore’s Law, as articulated by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, is that “The number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months.” Transistors, tiny electrical switches, are the fundamental unit that drives all the electronic gadgets we can think of. As they get smaller, they also get faster and consume less electricity to operate.

In the technology world, one of the biggest questions of the 21st century is: How small can we make transistors? If there is a limit to how tiny they can get, we might reach a point at which we can no longer continue to make smaller, more powerful, more efficient devices. It’s an industry with more than US$200 billion in annual revenue in the U.S. alone. Might it stop growing?

Getting close to the limit

At the present, companies like Intel are mass-producing transistors 14 nanometers across – just 14 times wider than DNA molecules. They’re made of silicon, the second-most abundant material on our planet. Silicon’s atomic size is about 0.2 nanometers.

Today’s transistors are about 70 silicon atoms wide, so the possibility of making them even smaller is itself shrinking. We’re getting very close to the limit of how small we can make a transistor.

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InSeNewly developed semiconductor materials are showing promising potential for the future of super-fast electronics.

A new study out of the University of Manchester details a new material called Indium Selenide (InSe). Like graphene, InSe if just a few atoms thick, but it differs from the “wonder material” in a few critical ways. While graphene has been hailed for its electronic properties, researchers state that it does not have an energy gap – making graphene behave more like a metal than a semiconductor.

Similarly, InSe can be nearly as thin as graphene while exhibiting electronic properties higher than that of silicon. Most importantly, InSe has a large energy gap, which could open the door to super-fast, next-gen electronic devices.

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Making the New Silicon

Shown here is the smallest laptop power adapter ever, made using GaN transistors.
Image: Cambridge Electronics

Recent discussions in the electronics industry have revolved around the future of technology in light of the perceived end of Moore’s law. But what if the iconic law doesn’t have to end? Researchers from MIT believe they have exactly what it takes to keep up with the constantly accelerating pace of Moore’s law.

More efficient materials

For the scientists, the trick is in the utilization of a material other than silicon in semiconductors for power electronics. With extremely high efficiency levels that could potentially reduce worldwide energy consumption, some believe that material could be gallium nitride (GaN).

MIT spin-out Cambridge Electronics Inc. (CEI) has recently produced a line of GaN transistors and power electronic circuits. The goal is to cut energy usage in data centers, electric cars, and consumer devices by 10 to 20 percent worldwide by 2025.

Semiconductors shaping society

Since its discovery in 1947, the transistor has helped make possible many wonders of modern life – including smartphones, solar cells, and even airplanes.

Over time, as predicted by Moore’s law, transistors became smaller and more efficient at an accelerated pace – opening doors to even more technological advancements.

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The Death of Moore’s Law

The future of technology

The iconic Moore’s law has guided Silicon Valley and the technology industry at large for over 50 years. Moore’s prediction that the number of transistors on a chip would double every two years (which he first articulated at an ECS meeting in 1964) bolstered businesses and the economy, as well as took society away from the giant mainframes of the 1960s to today’s era of portable electronics.

But research has begun to plateau and keeping up with the pace of Moore’s law has proven to be extremely difficult. Now, many tech-based industries find themselves in a vulnerable position, wondering how far we can push technology.

Better materials, better chips

In an effort to continue Moore’s law and produce the next generation of electronic devices, researchers have begun looking to new materials and potentially even new designs to create smaller, cheaper, and faster chips.

“People keep saying of other semiconductors, ‘This will be the material for the next generation of devices,’” says Fan Ren, professor at the University of Florida and technical editor of the ECS Journal of Solid State Science and Technology. “However, it hasn’t really changed. Silicon is still dominating.”

Silicon has facilitated the growth predicted by Moore’s law for the past decades, but it is now becoming much more difficult to continue that path.

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The iconic Moore’s law has predicted the technological growth of the chip industry for more than 50 years. When ECS member and co-founder of Intel Gordon Moore proposed the law, he stated that the number of transistors on a chip would double every two years. So far, he’s been correct.

But researchers have started hitting an apex that makes keeping the pace of Moore’s law extremely difficult. It has become harder in recent years to make transistors smaller while simultaneously increasing the processing power of chips, making it almost impossible to continue Moore’s law’s projected growth.

However, researchers from MIT have developed a long-awaited tool that may be able to keep driving that progress.

(READ: “Moore’s Law and the Future of Solid-State Electronics“)

The new technology that hopes to keep Moore’s law going at its current pace is called extreme-ultraviolet (EUV) lithography. Industry leaders say it could be used in high-volume chip manufacturing as early as 2018, allowing continued growth in the semiconductor industry, with advancements in our mobile phones, wearable electronics, and many other gadgets.

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IBM’s New Chip Quadruples Capacity

In recent years, the semiconductor industry has struggled to keep up with the pace of the legendary Moore’s Law. With the current 14-nanometer generation of chips, researchers have begun to question if it will remain possible to double transistor density every two and a half years. However, IBM is now pushing away the doubt with the development of their new chip.

The new ultra-dense chip hosts seven-nanometer transistors, which yields about four times the capacity of our current computer chip. Like many other researchers in the field, IBM decided to move away for the traditional and expensive pure silicon toward a silicon-germanium hybrid material to produce the new chip.

The success of the high-capacity chip relies on the utilization of this new material. The use of silicon-germanium has made it possible for faster transistor switching and lower power requirements. And did we mention how impossibly small these transistors are?

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Three Atom Thick Transistor

A new study by two ECS published authors, David Muller and Jiwoong Park, has led to an electronic piece that is just three atoms thick.

The researchers have unveiled a process to develop ultra-thin transistors made from TMD, otherwise known as transition metal dichalcogenide. This material is novel in the fact that it possesses properties that make it a perfect fit for solar cells, light detectors, or semiconductors.

Researchers have been examining TMDs for some time now, but have been finding it difficult to get them to work consistently. This new study has discovered the best process yet to manufacture the materials, which could lead to a breakthrough in the future of electronics and possibly bring about an end to Moore’s law.

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50 Years of Moore’s Law

mooreThe iconic Moore’s Law will mark its 50th anniversary this Sunday, April 19th. In celebration, we’ll be taking a look at the solid state revolutionary who made the incredible prediction, the inception of the law, and the deep-rooted links between Gordon Moore and The Electrochemical Society.

The initial transformation in the electronics industry began with an invention at Bell Labs in late 1947 of a little device known as the transistor. The transistor acted as a catalyst of change not only for solid state science and the electronics industry, but also for the composition and spirit of ECS membership—which would begin to be centered on the Electronics Division.

Prior to this solid state surge, electronics—specifically the Electronics Division at ECS—was centered on topics such as phosphors and cathode ray tubes in light of the advent of television. Moore joined ECS in 1957 and helped transform the division into something new—something exciting.

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ECS history book cover

Created for the centennial celebration of The Electrochemical Society (1902-2002).

Since its foundation in 1902, ECS and its members have been at the forefront of the challenge to bridge the gap between electrical engineering and chemistry. The years that followed the Society’s establishment have been filled with innovation, ingenuity, and excellence throughout the field of electrochemistry. Take a look back at some of ECS’s most prestigious members and their accomplishments.

Samuel Ruben

Ruben presenting his Acheson Award address in 1970.

Samuel Ruben
In 1918, Samuel Ruben, an 18-year old high school graduate, was hired by the Electrochemical Products Company in New York City. Bergen Davis of Columbia University arranged for Ruben to sit in on courses at Columbia and spent evenings tutoring him. Ruben went on to invent the dry electrolytic aluminum capacitor, the vacuum tube relay, the quick heather vacuum tube, a sold-state rectifier, and the balanced cell mercury battery.

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