Silicon is pretty good.
Testifying to its grandeur is more than 70 years’ worth of steady progress in electronic computing, from the first primitive desktop calculators to the pocket-sized supercomputer we call a smartphone.
Formulate silicon exactly, shape it into a transistor, and it can be both a conductor and an insulator, depending on the charge you go through it – a basic feature without which the entire digital revolution, and the internet, and everything from TikTok to Covid vaccines would be impossible.
But silicon shows age. The reliable two-year doubling in the computing power of microchips, known as Moore’s Law, has slowed and may soon come to an end. It is quite impossible to use basic methods to get the elements etched in silicon, such as transistors, below about 3 nanometers in their smallest dimension. (To put it in perspective, a 3-nanometer film can be as small as 1
Scientists on the bleeding edge of physics, chemistry and engineering are experimenting with exotic-sounding substances to be used in microchips. They include graphene, black phosphorus, transition metal dicalcogenides and boron nitride sheets. Overall, they are known as 2-D materials, since they are flat sheets just an atom or two thick. Mostly unknown only 20 years ago, they are now regularly produced in laboratories, using methods that are commonplace as a blender and as difficult as vapor deposition at high temperatures.