Microchip celebrates 50th anniversary
The microchip (integrated circuit / IC) yesterday celebrated its 50th birthday. Fairchild Semiconductor’s Robert Noyce received the first patent for a commercially available silicon IC on the 25th of April 1961.Firs
The Fairchild IC, a logic circuit, contained one transistor switch, three resistors and a capacitor. Since this time, competition between rival companies has led to the transistor density doubling and cost halving approximately every two years, an observation known as Moore’s Law.
Today’s cutting edge chips contain billions of transistors, are capable of trillions of calculations per second and integrate a raft of functionalities – from wireless connectivity to chemical analysis to image sensing.
A British success story
The microchip’s power, functionality and low cost have led to its application in virtually every part of modern life. According Dr. Derek Boyd, CEO of NMI, the UK’s leading electronics trade body, “the UK’s microelectronics sector continues to be at the forefront of this innovation,”
“UK based researchers, technologists and manufacturers are creating chips and systems capable of genetic disease detection, determining the build up of pollutants in the oceans, emitting light that sterilises drinking water or medical instruments, analysing the structural integrity of high-speed rail lines, and the early identification of injuries in racehorses.”
The UK is home to over 40 per cent of Europe’s independent electronic design community. Its 11,500 companies and 250,000 people form an ecosystem worth £23 billion per year to the British economy.
“You only have to look inside your mobile phone to see the British contribution,” continued Dr. Boyd. “You will likely find an ARM processor, a CSR Bluetooth and GPS chip, a Dialog Semiconductor power management device and an Imagination Technologies graphics core.”
NMI, has also highlighted transport, digital media, communications, healthcare and smart energy grids as key growth areas for the electronics industry here.
The next challenge: A more human way of processing
In a few cycles of Moore’s Law the transistor will shrink to hit the atomic size barrier. As this is approached electrons become harder to control and variability is introduced; making many ICs unusable and reliable manufacturing processes prohibitively expensive. But an answer may come from the brain’s evolution.
The University of Manchester’s Professor Steve Furber, runs the SpiNNaker project, which is attempting to model the brain and its behaviour, “Unlike silicon, the brain’s billions of neurons and countless reconfigurable connections, isn’t particularly affected by variability.”
SpiNNaker has funding for a machine that runs 1 million ARM processor cores and aims to more accurately “understand the link between the brain’s biological structure and its functionality. By determining how it copes with this variability, we can start to create tolerant chips that cope with these defects.”
Moving beyond Moore’s Law
An end to Moore’s Law will not be the end of progress, however, and the UK is at the forefront of research into new microchip materials and configurations.
NMI’s Dr. Boyd stating, “it is very easy to get excited about the future application of IC technology for the next 50 years too. Industry is already creating 3D IC structures in order to break free of Moore’s Law and then there are new technologies to consider such as plastic electronics, MEMs, and carbon nanotubes which increase the scope for semiconductor innovation,”
 A chip capable of detecting single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in DNA has been developed which gives results in minutes – DNA amplification, sequencing and analysis typically takes days. The device can be configured to detect any SNP, making it applicable to medicine, agriculture and pharmacology [Image].
The technology has been developed by Professor Chris Toumazou, founder and CEO of Toumaz Technologies and DNA Electronics.
 Researchers at Southampton University have created a chip to detect nutrients and pollutants at the ultra low concentrations found in the ocean.
Developed in collaboration with the National Oceanography Centre, the ‘lab on chip’ is capable of capable of measuring temperature, salinity, and the concentrations of nitrites, nitrates, phosphate, iron and manganese [Image].
 Plessey Semiconductor, in collaboration with Cambridge University, is developing an LED (light emitting diode) that uses Gallium Nitride to release light at wavelengths lethal to bacteria – 265nm [Image].
The low cost technology will be made available during this decade and be powered by solar cells. Plessey believes it will be adopted in developing economies or disaster zones to create clean drinking water, and in the developed world to replace chlorine sterilisation methods. Additional uses include the sterilisation of medical instruments.
 Accelerometer chips are being developed at the University of Southampton that, among other applications, are capable of detecting weaknesses in high-speed rail networks. The highly sensitive chips monitor how a section of track behaves whilst a train is on it. Any changes in behaviour can be used to determine changes in its structural integrity [Image].
 The Royal Veterinary College is developing systems based on Mems accelerometer chips that analyse the gait pattern of individual horses. By monitoring for small changes in these patterns it may be possible to identify and rest injuries earlier; and the technology could also be applied to professional athletes [Image].
 Source: Electronic System Design: A Guide to UK Capability 2009/10 Edition, BERR / UKTI