How small can chips get?
Nanotechnology has opened the doors to a new era of innovation, with a vast range of applications across fields like food science, electronics, medical, environmental, and material sciences. It has the potential to create breakthroughs in these industries that will forever shape our lives and the world we live in.
We’ve seen over the years how consumer electronics like mobile devices have been getting smaller, more sophisticated in their functionalities and capabilities thanks to the miniaturization of some components that have reached the size of a strand of DNA, allowing thousands of transistors to be fitted on a chip the size of a fingernail. This begs the question: how much smaller and faster can a microchip get when we’re already scraping the limits of what is physically possible to manufacture?
Humans were only able to reach this level of advancement after we learnt how to manipulate nanoparticles smaller than the thickness of a human hair. It laid the foundations for the development of higher quality performing products for a fraction of the price by using fewer materials and less energy in its production.
It’s difficult to say when the physical boundaries will be reached, given that nanotechnology is still in its infancy. Still, the manufacturing of some components is starting to approach the limits of what is physically possible to accomplish in the engineering and manufacturing of these nano parts. The R&D Chief of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (NYSE: TSM) stated: “We are approaching atomic-scale. We must find new ways in terms of transistor architecture, materials, processes, and tools. In the past, it’s pretty much been a major optical shrink, but that’s no longer a simple trick.”
TSM is the world’s largest contract chip manufacturer, consistently innovating and pushing the limits in this field, but their smallest chip of 3 nanometers is being challenged by International Business Machines (NYSE: IBM) after announcing that they successfully manufactured the first 2nm chip.
Following these steps is also Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) which recently announced an initial €33 Billion investment for research, development and manufacturing of semiconductors in Europe. Will Intel be able to rival IBM’s and TSM’s chips with an even yet smaller and more powerful version? There are physical limitations given the complexity and cost involved in the process of manufacturing components that are invisible to the human eye. Thus new solutions need to be developed that are not only focused on size if we expect to see continuous growth in this industry.
It is estimated that the global nanotechnology market will grow to reach over $100 billion by 2027 as more niche commercial applications are brought to market, both for retail consumers and industrial applications. Efforts are being made so that future developments in nanotech gravitate towards solutions that focus on energy conservation, raw material usage, reduction of water consumption and greenhouse emissions during production, thus making sustainability the primary focus.
Given this tendency, will we see public service companies like American Water Works (NYSE: AWK) implement nanotechnology to purify the drinking water they provide consumers or use it for the treatment of wastewater so we can further preserve this essential resource. Maybe we will see more benefits, like drinking water that has medical properties to cure illnesses which could be of great benefit for developing countries.
Nanotechnology has a promising future ahead but given the high costs involved in research, development and the strict government regulations to bring products to market, will these factors be too much of a restrain for future developments to be feasible? Will the market keep growing as expected, or will the opportunities in this field shrink under big promises? Some still argue that nanotechnology hasn’t been able to live up to its promises of highly advanced and intelligent nanomaterials. But one thing is sure, all you have to do is look down at your smartphone to know that our lives have forever been changed.