Technological Breakthrough!
Behold the Tiny Transistor

By: Richard Steele
Oahu Island News

IBM has managed to shrink the size of the transistor to its all-time tiniest.

The sophisticated little electronic switch, when crammed into the small, square-shaped processor (current Intel Pentium 4 chips have around 54 million of them!), allows computers to accomplish all the things that we want and expect them to do.

First invented in 1948, the now-microscopic, but crucial component of the modern computer won Bell Labs’ scientist William Shockley a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the transistor.

The advance by IBM is significant for several reasons. The more transistors in a processor chip, the more a computer can accomplish in a given amount of time. Also, more transistors on a chip decreases production costs, making computer systems cheaper.

Intel is currently overhauling the design of the Pentium 4 to bring the total number of transistors on the chip to 77 million by 2005. Currently there are about 54 million.

IBM’s advance could increase that close to a billion transistors on a chip within the next few years.

It has mainly been the ability of the engineers to continuously shrink the transistor’s size, and place more transistors within the processor chip, that has allowed the computers to double their processing speed every 18 months or so.

IBM has shrunk the transistor to just six nanometers (that’s six-billionths of a meter or 20,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair).

Just one-tenth the length of the current transistors in production, the improvement will allow engineers to put up to 100 times more transistors into a processor chip.

The advance would allow Moore’s Law (named for Gordon Moore of Intel, who many years ago made the observation that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every couple of years, while the cost is cut in half) to remain in effect through 2016.

Some technical issues remain before that becomes a reality, however. For instance, increasing the number of transistors also increases the amount of heat that the processor gives off. Also, the current thickness of the silicon wafer that the transistors sit on is not thin enough. In fact, Intel chief Andy Grove recently predicted an end to Moore’s law, mainly because the larger number of transistors will produce too much heat.

But given their track record, the people who overcome the technological obstacles will find a way. The bottom line for the rest of us is that computers should get significantly less expensive and a whole lot faster.

Richard Steele is owner of Easy Computer, a training, repair, upgrade, and new computer store located at 1649 Kalakaua Avenue, 942-3999.