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New Life for Moore's Law?

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Chou, who also founded Nanonex, is one of the prime advocates of "imprint lithography," a process that involves pressing an ornate template into a liquefied substrate to create a circuit pattern, similar to how a signet ring worked. In experiments, he has managed to create features measuring 6 nanometers, one-fifteenth the size on today's chips.

"Ten years ago, people said, 'This is crazy. You will never use technology to make things this small,'" Chou said.

Imprint lithography--along with silicon nanowires, phase change memory, spintronics optoelectronics, 3D chips and other technologies once largely considered scientific curiosities--is among the many emerging technologies that could extend the life of Moore's Law, the famous computing principle whose demise has been predicted repeatedly over the last few decades.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore's early observation about the rate of progress in the electronics industry--specifically, that the number of transistors on a microchip double every one to two years--turns 40 on Tuesday. Under this principle, chipmakers have managed to steadily boost the performance of their products while simultaneously dropping the price, a rare confluence that has allowed digital technology to seep into virtually every segment of the world economy.

Success, however, has created its own problems. Decades of doubling transistors has led to chips containing several million transistors and multibillion-dollar factories to produce them. Shrinking the size of transistors and the copper wires that connect them to fit more onto a chip has led to problems with electric leakage, power consumption and heat.

"There have been major reforms in the past. We're coming up on another such time where changes will have to be made. Power dissipation is the really big crunch right now," said Stan Williams, director of the Quantum Science Research unit at Hewlett-Packard. "The number of innovations that have to be put in at every generation is increasing."

And there's only so much room left for shrinking today's transistors. Transistors consist of four basic parts: a source (which stores electrons), a drain (where they go to create a "1" signal), a gate and a gate oxide (which control the flow from the source to the drain). After several shrinks, the gate oxide is only about 10 atoms thick in some cases, meaning an end to shrinking or an arduous chemical or architectural makeover.

Around 2023, the source and drain will be so close that electrons will travel freely between the two and corrupt data unless major changes are made in chip manufacturing techniques, design and materials.

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