Is the integrated silicon chip running out of time?

For more than four decades, silicon has been the backbone of the microelectronics industry; however, that is likely to change soon. By 2010, the manufacture of integrated circuits from silicon that can handle the increased horsepower of the future will become increasingly challenging.


Moore, co-founder of Intel Corp., predicted in 1965 that the number of transistors per integrated circuit – and therefore the power of computing devices using those circuits – would double every 18 months. This theory, dubbed “”Moore’s Law,”” was originally forecast to continue through 1975. The trend has remained true for longer. But how long can it continue?

There are physical limits to how miniscule silicon transistors can be made.

At a molecular level, there becomes a point when heat signals given off by the transistor will overwhelm its own electronic signals, causing too much “”noise”” to function efficiently. As well, such microscopically small silicon transistors require a super-clean environment so sterile that the cost of building facilities to produce them is expected to skyrocket to impossibly prohibitive levels.

Organic materials- polymers, oligomers – that sustained life on earth for centuries are being investigated as future alternatives to silicon. The fabrication of organic microprocessors can take place in ambient environments, allowing the development of carbon-based transistors by a low-cost printing process that is actually similar to jet printing used in ink-jets. On the other hand, Silicon chips require high temperatures and ultra-clean, vacuum environments for fabrication.

Xerox, in partnership with Motorola and Dow, has been working on developing a printed organic electronics technology, known as Organic Thin Film Transistor (OTFT) Fabrication. While reduced development cost is an exciting element of this technology, perhaps even more exciting is the flexibility it will bring. Organics are printable, structurally flexible and mechanically durable.

On the other hand, silicon is rigid and brittle, which limits its potential applications. Even while silicon technology will continue to be commonly used for a number of applications, like computer processors, printed organic electronics will allow intelligence to be integrated easily and efficiently into a variety of unique applications.

Organic materials have conducting and light-emitting properties, but today there remains the challenge that they – like living creatures – age with time and are vulnerable to breaking down due to oxidation. To counteract this, the scientific community continues to gain a deeper understanding of the causes of aging on organic molecules and is utilizing molecular chemistry techniques to overcome the breakdown of organic material.

Initial applications for printable organic electronics are expected to co-exist alongside silicon-based integrated circuits. Each material

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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