Article - Issue 30, March 2007

The Hafnium Breakthrough

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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Dr Scott Steedman FREng

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

"It may be early days, but creating plastics that emit light is a first step to wearing your own television screen...”

The announcement by Intel (followed a few hours later by IBM) in January 2007, that hafnium is to replace the silicon in the insulating layer on their microprocessor chips, took me somewhat by surprise. Firstly, I have to admit that prior to that moment, I hadn’t heard of hafnium. More significantly, with this new breakthrough the experts’ view is that ‘Moore’s Law,’ the proposition that Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, put forward in 1965 that the number of transistors on a chip could double every two years, should continue to hold good for at least another decade.

And then in February, Intel announced their fastest ever chip, about the size of a postage stamp but capable of more than one trillion calculations per second (a teraflop chip). Just eleven years ago, this feat required 10,000 chips assembled in a supercomputer that filled a 2,000 square foot room at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.

After forty years of silicon chips, now we have hafnium and a new generation of even smaller, more powerful computers lies ahead. If hafnium oxide becomes the insulator of choice for chips in the future, the new generation of transistors will be just 45 nanometers in size and electronic engineering will truly have reached the molecular scale. Where will all this lead?

In this issue,William Webb makes his predictions of the future of mobile (wireless) communications. In this area of electronics, at least, he argues we probably are reaching the limits, but for no other reason than we now have the networks in place. They will continue to be improved, but no new technological breakthrough is necessary, and the future challenge is to increase the density of data traffic, rather than the capacity of the network. Eventually we will see total convergence of broadcasting and telecommunications around single, increasingly clever ‘all-inone’ devices. William describes a mobile phone that is also your wallet, your keys, your entertainment console and even knows the contents of your fridge – a ‘remote control on life.’

We can imagine that on the back of this new communications infrastructure platform will come increasingly sophisticated products and services. These will exploit the computing power and miniaturisation of the ‘hafnium chip’ to create information systems so ‘clever’ that they become your personal electronic assistant, contextualising and presenting only high value information and rejecting everything else. As we personalise our own communication channels and manage our current information overload, the term ‘broadcasting’ will become as anachronistic as ‘gramophone’. Email will surely go the way of the fax ‘machine,’ and we will look back on this period as merely a transition to a new Knowledge Age. Beyond that, who knows?

But the announcement on hafnium is not the only development in micro-electronics that we should be taking notice of. Other breakthroughs are on the horizon too, which will make even the gadgets we use now look clumsy in years to come. In January this year, Polymer Vision announced a collaboration with Innos to launch the world's first production facility for manufacturing organic semiconductor based rollable displays. And in February, Professor Donal Bradley FRS of Imperial College, whose pioneering work on plastic electronics strikes me as an extraordinary development, received an award for innovation from the Royal Society. It may be early days, but creating plastics that emit light is a first step to wearing your own television screen – giving the expression ‘projecting yourself’ a whole new meaning. And no doubt plastic electronics is simply one more step in the research, development and innovation cycle in electronic engineering that provides us with a seemingly unlimited potential for creating wealth and improving our quality of life.

Perhaps Silicon Valley will retain its name even if organics take over, like streets of old keep their association with historic trades, perhaps not. Hafnium has been known for less than 90 years, but the arrival of this ‘new’ element into such a critical manufacturing process and the beginnings of a new industry of plastic electronics show, yet again, how human ingenuity and innovation know no bounds. Those who predicted the early demise of Moore’s Law will simply have to wait.

Dr Scott Steedman FREng

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