Semiconductor Breakthrough: Scientists Just Widened the Gap With New Tiny Chips

This could quadruple smartphone battery life.
Brad Bergan
A glitchy image of a computer processing circuit board.dem10 / iStock

A team of researchers just made a breakthrough in semiconductor materials, creating a chip that could push back the "end" of Moore's Law and further widening the capability gap between China and U.S.-adjacent efforts in the field of 1-nanometer chips, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature.

World leaders are racing to own a piece of future semiconductor chip technology

The breakthrough was accomplished in a joint effort, involving the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), National Taiwan University (NTU), and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), which is the world's largest contract manufacturer of advanced chips. At the core of the breakthrough is a process that employs semi-metal bismuth to allow for the manufacture of semiconductors below the 1-nanometer (nm) level.

Most present-day technology can already produce chips down to the 3-nm scale, but this breakthrough could literally "break the limits of Moore's Law," said Professor Chih-I Wu of the NTU, who is one of 23 authors in the study, in the announcement shared on NTU's website, according to a South China Morning Post report. Moore's Law is an engineering "rule of thumb" about the enhancement of computing power that says the cost of computing power will fall by half every time the number of transistors on a chip doubles (every two years).

Since this has obvious appeal for everyone, world governments and chip makers are pushing the physical limits of semiconductors in a global race to create and own a part of the future of technology. IBM recently announced that the first 2-nm chip might quadruple smartphone battery life, cut carbon footprints of data centers, enable greater laptop speed, and help broaden the applications of higher-performing artificial intelligence (AI). Meanwhile, China is very passionate about its fast-tracked semiconductor industry, working around the clock to discover new ways to close the gap with its semiconductor rivals in both materials and advanced packaging as global innovators edge closer to the physical limits of chips via Moore's Law.

Approaching the physical limit of semiconductor chip scales

Vice-Premier Lue He of China, who is close to President Xi Jinping, recently brought the country's best tech officials together to evaluate five-year plans on advanced technology, and one of them involved "potential disruptive semiconductor technologies," according to a Xinhua report. Scientists have predicted the end of Moore's Law for a decade, proving skeptics repeatedly wrong as chip makers discover new unprecedented ways of forcing more performance out of chips. While we haven't moved as fast as Gordon Moore's initial prediction circa 1965, chip nodes at 2-nm scales could help China and other interested parties close the growing gap between themselves and leading chip developers.

However, for now, China is years behind companies like TSMC, but the course of history can always change. "Advanced packaging", where different chips are combined into one superpowered set, could trigger China's acceleration in chip-making capability. It could also happen via "third-generation semiconductors", wherein new materials like gallium nitride (GaN) or silicon carbide (SiC) might serve as a new material base for chip development. But as world leaders continue to approach the paradoxical limit on chip size, progress must eventually ram into the physical limits of semiconductor materials, allowing the rest of the world to catch up.

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