We have to come up with a new name for Silicon Valley.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not going away. The famous region at the southern end of San Francisco Bay will continue being home to the world’s top high-tech companies. It’s just that we won’t be able to call it “Silicon Valley” much longer.
After all, the region earned its nickname based on the type of material we use to make semiconductors for a wide range of computers.
And that material is going to have to change.
Of course, silicon still holds a huge lead over other substances in computer chip design. But there’s a fundamental problem with silicon chips.
Engineers are running out of room on them.
You see, the Valley runs on a basic rule that has remained unchanged for many decades. It’s called Moore’s Law, and it states that computing power roughly doubles every two years. This explains why your smart phone is a better, faster computer than the mainframes NASA had when it made its moon shots in the ’60s.
To keep up with Moore’s Law, we need to pack ever more transistors – the tiny switches used to control computers – on semiconductors. The current number stands at more than a billion (on an area smaller than a postage stamp). That’s impressive. But at some point, the law of physics will limit how many transistors we can place on a piece of silicon.
It’s fast getting to the point where we can’t physically make transistors any smaller. And once we run out of real estate, the growth in processing power will hit a brick wall, in turn, slowing the entire pace of innovation around the globe.
That’s why I’m glad to tell you today about a new computing breakthrough from International Business Machines Inc. (NYSE:IBM). They scored a huge advance that could soon put the tech world light years ahead of where we are today.
This novel new material is made of a very familiar substance…
Discovered in 1991, a carbon nanotube is just a single sheet of carbon atoms rolled up into a tube. It’s hard to think of any computing substance smaller than these tubes – they’re 100,000 times less wide than a human hair.
Big Blue’s team placed an array of carbon nanotubes on top of a silicon wafer. Team members then used the tiny tubes to build hybrid chips that had more than 10,000 working transistors.
As you can imagine, it wouldn’t take that many carbon nanotubes to equal in impact what we get out of standard transistors. And that’s just what the IBM found.
To put this in practical terms, IBM showed that these new carbon-nanotube transistors can work as computer switches less than one-half the size of the best silicon tech we have right now. To get more details on what it all means, team members then ran computer simulations of how these kinds of circuits would work in the real world.
Fasten your seat belts, folks…
Based on those models, the team now predicts its carbon-tube system would run five to 10 times faster than what silicon can yield. That’s just a staggering increase in performance. It’s like taking your Toyota Prius out to the desert and running it at more than 500 miles an hour.
So, in the near future, your PC, your tablet computer, and smart phone could all run much – I mean much – faster. That’s just what we need, at a time when advanced software and things like high-def video are chewing up bandwidth.
It all cuts to the core of the Era of Radical Change. Once again, we find the U.S. at the forefront of cutting-edge high tech that could have a huge impact on the whole world. High tech is moving at warp speed. What used to be science fiction is becoming science fact – and all because of faster and more robust computers.
In fact, I believe any system that allows our computers to process 500% to 1000% faster will have a huge impact on everything from cancer research to the coming age of space tourism.
Of course, IBM faces many hurdles before it can perfect the new process and get it to market. Team members believe it may take a decade to pull that off – in no small part because the tubes themselves must be highly pure.
In their native state, these tubes come as a mix of metallic and semiconducting matter. But to make electronic circuits work without going haywire, engineers must use a precise mix of semiconductors; no impurities allowed, not even a speck of dust.
To get around this hurdle, the IBM team got creative. They used a process called ion-exchange chemistry. Don’t worry about the details of this approach. It’s very complex. At the heart, it means they found a way to make the carbon pure enough to pack a lot of nanotubes into a very small space.
And this is vital for a simple reason.
Even though the industry in the near future may change to carbon switches, chip makers likely won’t have to retool to make these new high-speed circuits.
Don’t gloss over this fact. It’s key.
It means the industry can use the same factories that cost them billions of dollars to build over the last couple of decades. So, the sector has every technical and financial reason to embrace carbon now.
I’m looking forward to the day when I can say I live just 40 minutes from “Carbon Valley.”