Components inside a molecule or Electronics in the quantum world

Components inside a molecule or Electronics in the quantum world

Electronic devices have become so miniature that they no longer obey our usual laws, but live in the world of quantum mechanics. Yes, Kostyantyn Katin, a professor at NIAU MIFI, who works as part of a multinational international group of scientists, reported about new research: work is currently underway to study the current-voltage characteristics of a nanolayer made of ruthenium ion (it belongs to platinum metals). The ultimate goal is to create electronic components no bigger than one molecule in size. It sounds fantastic, but, as Konstantin says, this is the perspective of the next 10-15 years. This will give a huge increase in the productivity of computers and reduce their power consumption – the last step in the miniaturization of electronics.

In the quantum world, completely different laws apply: here one particle can exist and not exist at the same time, as well as be in two different places. Can practical physics tame quantum chaos? Let’s try to figure it out.

How Moore’s Law Works

In 1965, engineer and co-founder of Intel Gordon Moore put forward hypothesis that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double every year. This prediction was later called “Moore’s Law”. The author assumed that electronics will develop very quickly, gradually becoming more powerful, more energy efficient and cheaper. Actually, this is what happened in the 21st century. The basis of the law was the inevitability of technical progress.

It is noteworthy that the first years the law did not work at all, and Moore had to make adjustments in 1975 – now doubling was expected every 24 months. This prediction became much closer to reality.

But why such attention to transistors? These microscopic components of electronics play a role.switches“, which allow you to process data in the binary system. The basis of modern transistors are semiconductors, which in their normal state do not conduct electric current. But everything turns upside down after adding impurities with atoms of a trivalent or pentavalent chemical element to their crystal lattice. By changing the strength of the electric field, we can control the bandwidth of the transistor. And the more of them can fit on the board, the more massive the volume of processed data.

Today, Moore’s Law is often criticized and controversial among physicists and electronics experts. Many believe that he stopped working due to physical, financial and other limits. For example, you can track how it changed cost of silicon wafers TSMC in pursuit of miniaturization: 7nm – $10,000, 5nm – $16,000, 3nm – $20,000. But so far, this is the only scheme that clearly demonstrates the reduction of electronic components over time.

In addition, there are nanometers

If you are interested in the world of smartphones and even if you occasionally read reviews of modern electronics, then you have come across the concept of technical process. For example, one of key “chips” of the new iPhone 15 Pro – 3-nm technological process in the manufacture of chips. Here we need a couple of concepts from physics:

  • The gate of the transistor – an insulated conductor, a control electrode that regulates the flow of charge carriers in the channel (from the beginning of the transistor to the drain);

  • Technical process earlier – The size of the gate of the transistor (after overcoming 32 nm, the concept loses relevance).

Once upon a time, the technical process was strictly tied to the size of the gate, but then progress went far ahead and the space occupied by transistors was no longer determined only by the width of the channel. Now this is more of a marketing ploy, as each company has its own concept of “nanometers”. Let’s explain it on examples. What are the sizes of transistors in 10-nm chips from two different manufacturers:

Transistors of different dimensions are obtained, but with the same technical process in the name. Therefore, progress can be tracked only within the range of one manufacturer: we know for sure that TSMC 7 nm is more productive than 10 nm, but if you start comparing with Intel, confusion arises. Add to that Samsung technology, Japanese, Chinese engineers, and you get confusion.

The conclusion here is simple: the fewer nanometers in the name, the more powerful the core of the device when compared to the previous generation. But is “less is always better”? No, not forever. Yes, Google engineers assure, that “microchips become unpredictable as the technical process decreases.” Their colleagues from AMD confirm theory: “Thinner technical processes will aggravate the situation with overheating.” In the end, the approach to the cooling system will have to be revised. Still, no one has canceled physical laws yet.

A race of sizes

There are not many world leaders in the production of semiconductor components. Let’s highlight the latest achievements of trendsetters:

  • TSMC. A Taiwanese giant that supplies the market with about 50% of all chips. According to the latest data, TSMC is active working over the 2 nm technological process – mass production of new generation products is planned for 2025.

  • Intel. The American corporation is trying to keep up with TSMC. Yes, their engineers are already testing the new technical process Intel 4. Here, the confusion of nanometers, which the companies launched, is clearly manifested: the number 4 appears in the name, Intel calls the process 7-nm, and it competes with TSMC’s 3-nm.

  • Samsung. The second Korean supplier after TSMC stated on the launch of serial production of 3-nm chips. Master 2 nm they are planning also in 2025.

  • China. Let’s touch on several Chinese productions separately. As are reported mass media, in China with a high probability, its own production of 5-nanometer processors appeared. After all, a year ago their limit was 14 nm topology. Truly impressive progress, and experts expect new successes from the PRC. Yes, recently scientists from Peking University reported about a breakthrough in the field of creating a two-dimensional material one atom thick — this could be the basis of future miniature electronics.

  • Japan. Japanese corporations want to skip several stages of the technical process and focus immediately on minimal transistors. For example, the company Rapidus is planning master the 1-nm process from 2027 to 2030, and Imec in 2030 assumes creation of the first electronic component with a size of less than one nanometer – 7 angstroms (0.7 nm).

There are no factories in Russia capable of competing with TSMC, Intel, and Samsung in terms of nanometers. Yes, the line for the production of 90-nm chips remains the limit for now — this technical process was mastered by world leaders back in 2002. The Government of the Russian Federation has prepared previous concept a new national project in the field of electronics. Its implementation by 2030 may cost 3190000000000 rubles. The ultimate goal is to launch the production of 28-nm chips. Such a technical process was used by Apple in the production of the A7 processor, which was installed in the iPhone 5S – a 10-year-old smartphone. But the field is actively financed, and until 2027 is planned to create machine-building countries for microelectronics, developing equipment for all semiconductor production cycles. The cost of the project is about 100 billion rubles.

Limits of reducing electronics

There are physical laws that limit the size of transistors at a fundamental level. Let’s add three basic restrictions to the table:

Transistor parameter

Limit value

What is limited

Features of IBM’s advanced CMOS transistor

Channel length

0.05-0.1 μm

Seepage effect

0.25 μm

The thickness of the insulating layer

4-5 nm

Tunnel effect

6 nm

The magnitude of the logical difference

1 V

Noises

1.2 V

You can see how close IBM engineers came to the physical limits of microminiaturization. Therefore, it is not worth counting on the further work of Moore’s Law.

In addition to “natural” limiters, there are also technological ones. They are not so strict, but still require a solution:

  1. Heat removal. The more productive an electronic component is, the more heat-radiating elements it contains – there’s no escaping this. It is necessary to increase the dimensions of the cooling system or invent new methods of heat removal.

  2. Interconnection. Each individual microscopic component is connected to neighboring ones to transmit electrical impulses. Even in advanced integrated circuits, more than half of the crystal area is occupied by interconnections, which greatly complicates production. And increases the cost of the final product.

  3. Semiconductor homogeneity. As the size of the semiconductor decreases, the influence of various defects obtained during production increases. Even a few extra molecules can change the characteristics of a transistor beyond recognition. It is not easy to achieve such purity.

  4. Construction. Special multi-layer assembly again complicates the production cycle with each new technical process. Eventually, the marriage rate may become so high that it would be impractical to issue such chips.

Let’s turn to thoughts scientist Konstantin Katin, with whom we started the article: “In 10-15 years, most of the electronic components in use may become the size of a molecule. This will give a huge increase in the productivity of computers and significantly reduce their energy consumption. After that, it will no longer be possible to reduce electronics, so we will have to look for fundamentally new ways for its development.” It turns out that we have approached the boundaries set by physics itself.

Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger considers so: “Intel could build a chip with 1 trillion transistors by 2030, while today’s largest chip in a single package contains about 100 billion.” Yes, the effect of Moore’s Law has slowed down, but there is still room for progress. At the same time, Gelsinger cannot ignore the financial side of the issue: “Seven or eight years ago, a modern factory cost about $10 billion. Now it is necessary to spend about $20 billion, so we are observing another shift in the economy.”

It should be noted that the development of completely different approaches to the development of electronics began a long time ago. For example, Danish scientists offer to use magnetism for information transmission instead of electrons.

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