General Science, Mathematics, and Technology


Are any devices being developed to replace silicon chips?

When transistors were introduced in 1948, they demanded less power than fragile, high-temperature vacuum tubes; they allowed electronic equipment to become smaller, faster, and more dependable; and they generated less heat. These developments made computers much more economical and accessible; they also made portable radios practical. However, the smaller components were harder to wire together, and hand wiring was both expensive and error-prone.

In the early 1960s, circuits on silicon chips allowed manufacturers to build increased power, speed, and memory storage into smaller packages, which required less electricity to operate and generated even less heat. While through most of the 1970s manufacturers could count on doubling the components on a chip every year without increasing the size of the chip, the size limitations of silicon chips are becoming more restrictive. Though components continue to grow smaller, the same rate of shrinking cannot be maintained.

Researchers are investigating different materials to use in making circuit chips. Gallium arsenide is harder to handle in manufacturing, but it has the potential for greatly increased switching speed. Organic polymers are potentially cheaper to manufacture and could be used for liquid-crystal and other flat-screen displays, which need to have their electronic circuits spread over a wide area. Unfortunately, organic polymers do not allow electricity to pass through as well as the silicons do. Several researchers are working on hybrid chips, which could combine the benefits of organic polymers with those of silicon. Researchers are also in the initial stages of developing integrated optical chips, which would use light rather than electric current. Optical chips would generate little or no heat, would allow faster switching, and would be immune to electrical noise.


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