Integrated Photonics could hold the breakthrough.
Next month, the worldwide semiconductor industry will formally acknowledge what has become increasingly obvious to everyone involved: Moore’s law, the principle that has powered the information-technology revolution since the 1960s, is nearing its end.
The doubling of transistors on a given piece of silicon real estate has already started to falter, thanks to the heat that is unavoidably generated when more and more silicon circuitry is jammed into the same small area. And some even more fundamental limits loom less than a decade away. Top-of-the-line microprocessors currently have circuit features that are around 14 nanometres across, smaller than most viruses. But by the early 2020s, says Paolo Gargini, chair of the road-mapping organization, “even with super-aggressive efforts, we’ll get to the 2–3-nanometre limit, where features are just 10 atoms across. Is that a device at all?” Probably not — if only because at that scale, electron behaviour will be governed by quantum uncertainties that will make transistors hopelessly unreliable. And despite vigorous research efforts, there is no obvious successor to today’s silicon technology.