IBM has managed to
shrink the size of the transistor to its all-time tiniest.
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
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
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
IBM’s advance could
increase that close to a billion transistors on a chip within the next few
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
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
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.