The Smart Techie was renamed Siliconindia India Edition starting Feb 2012 to continue the nearly two decade track record of excellence of our US edition.

February - 2003 - issue > Cover Feature

Chips Ahoy!

Venkat Ramana
Thursday, January 30, 2003
Venkat Ramana
IN 1947, A TECHNOLOGAL INNOVATION WAS achieved at the Murray Hill, NJ facilities of Bell Labs; the first transistor was made of germanium, a weak or “semi” conductor of electricity. It was able to amplify electric current and communicate by turning the current on and off. Then in September 1958, Texas Instruments’ Jack Kilby introduced the world to the integrated circuit (IC), a.k.a. the semiconductor. While the original had only a single transistor and was about the size of a small finger, today’s most powerful processors contain 42 million transistors that work together to store and manipulate data, so that the microprocessor can perform a wide variety of useful functions.

From 1958, the semiconductor or microprocessor or the “chip” has gone through the inevitable “shrink and stretch” evolution dictated by technology; shrinking the size of the product while stretching the possibilities of its functions. As the size of the chip shrunk, the number of transistors embedded in it increased logarithmically, so much so that Gordon Moore predicted that this transistor squeeze would double every two years (now revised to a more realistic 18 months).

As Vinod Dham says, chips will pervade our lives in ways not yet seen or imagined. But the shape of the future is not hard to perceive—one world where even inanimate objects would be embedded with chips that we won’t even notice. It is not unreasonable to claim that microchips will be the foundation of the 21st Century. We can expect the semiconductor chip to power most advancements in transportation, biotechnology and medicine. Automobiles are becoming computers on wheels. According to Alex Trotman, Ford Motors’ CEO, “the Ford Taurus has more computing power than the original Apollo that went to the moon in 1969.” Soon, steering, throttle, and braking systems will be controlled electronically on the automated highway system.

Chips come in many shapes, sizes, and perform a variety of functions. As uses increase in penetration, the costs of chips have gone down. The classic example is that of the chips inside a computer. From a single, mammoth processing machine at IBM, semiconductors have been the catalysts in the evolution of the computer—from a few corporate computer centers to thousands of workstations to millions of home computers and sleek laptops. Industry analysts note that the price of the semiconductors have dropped by 30 percent in the last 30 years, and predict another such drop in the next 30.

All of this sounds impressive, but what goes on to create these complex devices is equally impressive. Putting 42 million transistors in a space the size of a postage stamp with zero contamination is an arduous accomplishment. The diminutive engines that power the global village begin as pure silicon, are melted and then re-solidified to form single 250-pound crystals. These crystals are sliced into thin eight-inch or 200mm wafers (300mm wafers are currently in development). The wafers must be flat and vary no more than 1/100th of the thickness of a human hair. As many as 1,000 chips are built upon each finished wafer, with 20 layers of different materials placed carefully on the thumbnail-sized space. A standard semiconductor fab today produces around 30,000 8” wafers per month.

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