Liquid Metal Printing Will Revolutionise Chip Production

Increasing power and reducing costs

Ever since the semiconductor boom of the 1980s, developers have jostled to create the most powerful chips. Electronic chips and their transistors have experienced a repeat process of miniaturisation, inspiring the hotly debated Moore’s Law. Moore argued that the processing power of computers (in other words, the number of transistors per chip) will double every two years. Now, this isn’t so straightforward. In the next few years, it will no longer be economically viable to keep shrinking transistors. In response, researchers are exploring new ways to improve chip power. Which organisations are working to achieve this, and how will it disrupt the semiconductor industry?

Innovative chips
One of the biggest obstacles to chip production is the cost and difficulty of creating ultra-thin semiconductors. However, a team of universities seem to have found a workable solution. RMIT, Monash University, North Carolina State University and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have developed an atomically thin semiconductor using liquid metal nano-printing that will stretch the processing power of chips even more. Professor Kourosh Kalantar-Zadeh of RMIT is responsible for leading the project, and stated that due to barriers in production, mobile phone and computer chip power hasn’t changed in five years. . . but by layering ultra-thin chips on the same surface, the team have increased processing power at the same time as reducing costs. Established chip developers are also playing a part in the changing market. American semiconductor company AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) released a new chip called Ryzen on March 2nd.  Although AMD has represented the budget option in CPUs, their new product costs around $500, directly challenging high-end processors created by the likes of Intel. The rivalry between AMD and Intel goes back to the early 2000s, when Intel had to compensate AMD for malicious practises against the brand. Despite this, the company hasn’t given the impression that it considers AMD a threat. Tech giant IBM is also fuelling the advancement of chips using carbon nanotubes as a replacement for silicon.

How disruptive are new chip developments?
Researchers have been consumed by miniaturisation for decades. As much as innovative chip production encourages this, it’s also changing the way that developers think about CPUs. Adopting novel solutions like alternative materials and nanotechnology is helping to overcome barriers, improving the efficiency of both the semiconductors themselves and the way they’re made. Whilst these new methods aren’t quite as cheap as chips, they’re still more affordable than traditional alternatives and will continue to push the boundaries of CPUs. So, on the one hand, the use of new production methods in the semiconductor industry will disrupt the entire market. But on the other hand, it will do exactly the opposite by continuing the process of miniaturisation. Outside of the semiconductor market, improved chip technology has astounding potential. For example, improving the performance of chips will enable greater connectivity by processing more data. Tiny chips developed by relatively young companies like U-blox will advance the growing Internet of Things, which will also contribute to an increasingly connected world. Team this with advancements in wi-fi and satellite technology, and ubiquitous Internet may become an imminent reality.

So far, the drive to push chip capabilities to the absolute limit has kept Moore’s Law alive. The new technique developed by RMIT and their academic partners could provide a way to layer chips for increased power. Other companies are pursuing their own strategies to keep demand for chips going.  AMD, Intel, Microsoft and IBM are all experimenting with innovative solutions, including younger businesses like U-blox. Despite their relative monopolies, legacy companies should not underestimate their less established competitors. For instance, it could be a huge oversight on Intel’s part to overlook AMD. In short, the semiconductor market it changing yet again. . . and these changes will have a fundamental impact on global processing and connectivity.

Could atomically thin chips bring about the next revolution in electronics? Which other industries will be affected by new chip technology? Should Intel be worried about AMD? Share your comments below.