What Reaching the Size Limit of the Transistor Means for the Future

The advances in computing and communications wouldn’t have been possible without the transistor. This small semiconductor device invented at Bell Labs in 1947, has allowed the proliferation of integrated circuits, the core element in any hardware component. The latest semiconductor shortage is a clear reflection of the important place it has in current technologies. Over the years, transistors have been getting smaller and smaller with the advances in lithography technology which is allowing higher yield in the production process. The miniaturization has been happening at a steady pace for the last few years. However, the transistor size has been slowly reaching the physical limit which corresponds to the size of a Silicon atom. To this end, what does reaching the size limit of the transistor mean for the future?

Moore’s Law and Hardware Evolution

The fast evolution in transistor technology has paved the way to a ferocious development of hardware systems. The first computers which relied on vacuum tubes, the predecessor of transistors, filled a whole room with minimum storage and processing capabilities compared to today’s standard. With the increasing miniaturization, and the ability to squeeze more transistors into a tiny area, smaller chip footprints are now capable of achieving what a computer filling a whole building could not even get close to back in the days. The result has in particular been the advent of portable computing and communication devices such as laptops and smartphones. On the other end, large data centers with servers having huge storage capacity and notable processing power have been designed for intensive data crunching applications.  

The drive in the semiconductor industry has been guided in the last decades by Moore’s law. Established by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, the law predicts a doubling in the number of transistors every two years. The development in transistor technology has been able to keep up with Moore’s law so far. As of 2022, IBM has announced that it has successfully developed a two-nanometer technology. This is only 10 times the size of a Silicon atom which stands at 0.2 nanometers. This would also allow 50 billion transistors to be crammed in a fingernail-sized chip. In comparison, commercial state-of-the-art chips such as the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, to be used in the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4, utilizes a 4-nanometer process technology.

The End of Moore’s Law?

Predicting the end of Moore’s law is a speculation, as the law is a prediction itself. The development of production technology is the only thing that can determine the evolution in the number of transistors. Several research articles have tried to study the validity of the law in the current era. However, all they were able to prove is that Moore’s law is witnessing a slowdown, rather than being completely dead. As companies are capable of refining their production process and creating new techniques to stack transistors in a given area, Moore’s law shall be able to survive for another period of time.

Overcoming the Transistor Size Limit in the Future

The future of computing and communications system relies a lot on the available hardware. With the increasing complexity of artificial intelligence algorithms and the emergence of applications requiring considerable processing and communication capabilities such as extended reality, the current chips be rendered obsolete a few years after they are released. If transistor miniaturization and arrangement reach their limit, alternative solutions can be developed, if they aren’t yet so.

Graphene and Carbon Nanotubes: When Transistor Size no Longer Matters?

Graphene and carbon nanotube transistors are the latest technologies investigated to replace silicone-based transistors. Graphene is a monolayer of carbon atoms that form a hexagonal structure. It was discovered in 2004 by a group of physicists, a discovery that earned them the Nobel Price in 2010. Graphene has all the properties required for future electronics in terms of its thinness, strength, flexibility, and good electricity conduction properties. Researchers are still studying how to develop commercial graphene transistors. Scientists have gone as far as investigating origami (Paper folding in Japanese) structures to create a transistor-like device without adding any other material.

Carbon nanotube-based transistors is another class of transistors that rely on graphene. This time, sheets of graphene are rolled out to form the nanotubes. While Moore did not specify the type of transistor built that will ensure the trend he predicted, these new transistor designs based on newly developed material can extend the lifetime of the fabled trend that ushered the development of the hardware industry.

Quantum Computing and Rose’s Law

Quantum computing is seen as the future of computing devices that will cause a giant leap in computational and processing power, communications, and many other sectors that rely on digital data. The complete ecosystem that relies on the classical ‘0,1’ binary data will be recentered around the new unit in quantum computing, the quantum bit (qubit). Analogously to Moore’s law, Rose’s law predicts a doubling of qubits every two years. IBM is targeting a 1121 qubit computer in 2023 which is called the Condor. Based on the properties of quantum computing, each qubit can possibly take the value of two bits. In a sense, IBM’s Condor roughly 1000 qubits is equivalent to 10300 bits which requires 10284 years to simulate in a classical binary computer. These numbers illustrate the power quantum computer should bring when commercially available. Still some time to reach that point, but at least our current systems would still be useful by then.


The accelerated progress in the hardware industry has been fueled by a refined transistor production technology that pushes the physical boundaries through an aggressive miniaturization process. As this is achieved, a much larger number of transistors would be used which will boost the performance considerably. As we are nearing the size of the atom, the future of the current transistor technology as we know it is in doubt and the long-lasting Moore’s law could finally become obsolete. However, newer transistor design that rely on innovative material, and the emerging quantum computers have appeared to assume the continuity and potentially revive Moore’s law with a faster rate than once predicted by the man himself.

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