Overview/Faster, Better Chips" data-pin-do="buttonBookmark">
INNNOVATION BOOSTS the performance of microprocessors, providing techniques that go beyond shrinking the size of transistors. The chip shown here, enlarged some 50,000 times, improves speed and saves power by placing silicon for the transistors (light blue) above a layer of oxide (green). Image: COURTESY OF INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORPORATION. UNAUTHORIZED USE NOT PERMITTED
For most people, the notion of harnessing nanotechnology for electronic circuitry suggests something wildly futuristic. In fact, if you have used a personal computer made in the past few years, your work was most likely processed by semiconductors built with nanometer-scale features. These immensely sophisticated microchips--or rather, nanochips--are now manufactured by the millions, yet the scientists and engineers responsible for their development receive little recognition. You might say that these people are the Rodney Dangerfields of nanotechnology. So here I would like to trumpet their accomplishments and explain how their efforts have maintained the steady advance in circuit performance to which consumers have grown accustomed.
The recent strides are certainly impressive, but, you might ask, is semiconductor manufacture really nanotechnology? Indeed it is. After all, the most widely accepted definition of that word applies to something with dimensions smaller than 100 nanometers, and the first transistor gates under this mark went into production in 2000. Integrated circuits coming to market now have gates that are a scant 50 nanometers wide. That's 50 billionths of a meter, about a thousandth the width of a human hair.