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09 December 2013

Thinking very small in Belgium 

Recent discoveries by a Belgian research company are helping computer manufacturers defy the laws of physics by continually boosting microchip power and efficiency.

Such firms include Imec, which specializes in nanotechnology and is hard at work finding solutions to the riddle of how to squeeze ever more transistors onto a silicon chip.

Innovation at the atomic level is essential to the ability of semiconductor producers to deliver ongoing increases in computing power at the same or lower cost – a phenomenon that has driven the growth of the computer industry and the digital transformation of daily life. 

Moore’s Law, which declared that the number of transistors in a microprocessor would double every two years, has held true since the mid-1960s. But circuits cannot be reduced infinitely.

The latest microcircuits are so tiny that they seem to be bumping against the limits of physics. However, Imec and its partners around the globe keep finding ways to extract more computing power from the same size chips.

In November 2013, Imec unveiled technology that allows transistors to be scaled down to half the size of the circuits on today’s most advanced chips. A critical element is that transistors can run at low voltage, preventing the chip from overheating (while also reducing power consumption).

Imec’s advances appear to sustain the validity of Moore’s Law, at least for a few more generations of computers, smartphones, tablets and other products. And who can say for sure that by the time the technology’s limits have been reached, Imec and firms like it will not have come up with another revolutionary way of miniaturizing transistors even further?