Moore of the same?

Computers continue to grow more and more powerful. Can this continue forever?

A famous rule of thumb in the computer industry, known as Moore’s Law, states that a silicon chip’s processing power – or, more accurately, the number of components on an integrated circuit – will double every 18 months. Broadly speaking, it’s held true since Gordon E Moore, a co-founder of the chip manufacturer Intel, made the prediction in 1965.

The law holds because manufacturers have been able to cram more and more components onto their chips. Components are now sub-100 nm in size – well into nano-territory. Industry specialists expect the trend to continue for several more chip generations, with chips still based on silicon.

But new problems will emerge at nanoscales, as quantum effects come into play. At everyday scales the mechanics of matter follow neat Newtonian rules, but at near-atomic distances Newton’s laws go out of the window and property begins to show strange characteristics:

  • Material can behave as if it is a wave or a particle (wave–particle duality).
  • Properties such as energy levels do not change in a continuous fashion, but in discrete ‘jumps’ (quanta).
  • It becomes impossible to pin down both a particle’s position and its speed of movement (the uncertainty principle).

In practice, this means that electric currents cease to flow around integrated circuits in neat, predictable ways. Current ‘leakage’ becomes a significant problem. Nevertheless, Intel believes chip features could go right down to the 5 nm size, taking advantage of technologies such as quantum dots and carbon nanotubes.

Eventually, though, the days of the silicon chip will be numbered. If we are to progress further, a change in technology will be needed – perhaps quantum computers or DNA computers.

Lead image:

Fabrizio Sciami/Flickr CC BY

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development