The ongoing collapse of Moore's Law is one of the least reported stories in technology today.
That old canard says that the number of transistors that's possible to fit onto a chip will double every two years. Like a shark, our processing industry can only survive in its current form thanks to that constant forward motion - and with the rate of semiconductor advance now slowing, the industry could well slow down with it.
Silicon is, at this point, totally incapable of providing any further advancement; a new material is needed, one that can be reliably laid down at scales well below 10 nanometers.
For a long time, experts have argued
carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are the
most likely answer, and this week IBM announced it expects to have a
commercial CNT chip ready by the year 2020.
Engineers have spent the last decade or so forecasting the end of silicon as a metal that could support much further miniaturization; its properties make it inherently difficult to lay down at the scales we're beginning to require.
But carbon nanotubes are just rolled up
tubes of graphene, which is only a single atom thick; though
engineers have been talking bout
graphene as the future of
transistors for a while now, IBM is the first to really put itself
out there on the issue.
A carbon nanotube.
IBM has already demonstrated the ability to create processors with about 10,000 transistors, but that's still a long, long way off what we'll need.
The manufacturing process they've chosen
for this project sees units of six CNTs acting as each transistor.
They're about 30 nanometers long and 1.4 wide, spaced eight
nanometers apart - given their calculations, a CNT processor could
be six times faster than a modern silicon chip for the same power
It would be gut-punchingly expensive to
replace all the manufacturing infrastructure that exists around
making silicon chips, so much of the funding these days goes to
finding ways old manufacturing tech could produce new chip tech.
It's unclear whether IBM has made a specific breakthrough that led it to this announcement or just a general feeling of progress and meaningful forward movement.
Either way, the company is upfront about the fact that if CNT computers don't manage to make some sort of move by around the year 2020, the window of opportunity may close.
Potentially competing technologies are
also under development, from
quantum computers to
optical computers and beyond, and
their potential to increase computational power is far greater than
And if even the computer business can't thrive in the new economy, then there it's official: