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Chips with everything

Electronic circuit board close up.

Words: Angela McManus

They are the foundation of our digital world and can be found in everything from smartphones and cars to medical equipment. We use them in space exploration and to track the movements of our pets. Think about it: without microchips you wouldn’t be able to read this.

What is a microchip?

This sophisticated piece of equipment has dramatically changed the way we live but what exactly is a microchip? A pattern of miniature electrical switches, known as transistors, creates a set of electronic circuits on the surface of a small flat piece of silicon, known as a wafer. These transistors turn a current on and off; and millions of them, along with other components, are etched onto a single chip.

The magic ingredient – silicon – is a naturally occurring element which can conduct electricity. Silicon wafers are made using silica-containing sand, which is melted and cast in the form of a large cylinder or ingot then cut into thin slices.

Working separately, US electrical engineers Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce invented the microchip, or integrated circuit, in the late 1950s, making it possible to incorporate a roomful of equipment into a device that could be held in the palm of the hand. In turn, this made electronic equipment dramatically cheaper to manufacture and sell.

How the chip changed everything

It’s no exaggeration to say the dawning of the digital age unleashed change comparable to the Industrial Revolution. Microchips are working away every time we switch on the TV, sit at a computer or use a mobile phone. They’re an integral part of cars, electric scooters and airport check-in desks.

In some cases, the use of microchips is a matter of life and death. Consider the technology used in heart pacemakers, for example. From MRI scans to insulin pumps, it’s thought that 50% of all medical devices use integrated circuits. Having been used in operating theatres and other medical applications for some time, chips are now enabling lifesaving robotic surgery as well as remote diagnoses and remote surgery, which is revolutionising healthcare across the world.

Continual improvements in chip technology have seen a massive increase in computing power and memory function. To put it into perspective, your smartphone has around 100,000 times as much processing power as the NASA computer used in the Apollo missions to the Moon back in the 1960s and 1970s. In a relatively short space of time, we’ve come a very long way from creating the technology that put humans into space to mass manufacturing the magical pocket-size devices we all carry about today. Imagine being told in the 1970s about a smartphone? No one would have believed such things were possible, and now we can’t live without them.

As a cautionary note, it’s worth remembering the global chip shortage at the start of this decade, which led to long waits for everything from cars to household appliances. Caused by supply chain disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with an increase in demand as more of us started working remotely and needed increased connectivity, the lack of chips pushed up prices. In 2021 the car manufacturer Renault suffered significant production losses and their car production was cut by about 500,000 due to the crippling semiconductor shortage.

To infinity and beyond

Providing memory and storage for electronic devices, microchips also process and control all this data. And it is predicted that, by 2025, the world will be producing 175 zettabytes of data per year. That means if you were to store 175 zettabytes on DVDs, they’d be stacked high enough to circle the Earth 222 times.

Back in the 1960s Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, defined a theory known as Moore’s Law which changed the way consumer technology evolved. Moore believed that the number of transistors – those tiny electrical switches – that could fit on a single chip would double every two years or so. At the time, it was predicted to continue for another 10 years.

More than two decades into the 21st century many believe Moore’s Law is still valid. The theory drives the design of ever smaller transistors on a chip, which means the devices and appliances we use are faster and more energy efficient. The more we buy, the bigger the demand by consumers and so it goes on.

There are inevitable physical and economical restrictions on just how small those switches can be built. But as we look to the future, technological advances mean there are new possibilities on the horizon for the way transistors are used and applied to meet consumer demand.

For example, there has been a growing movement towards alternatives to silicon chips, such as silicon carbide and system-on-a-chip designs. With improved performance and efficiency, they offer a boost in power handling and a decrease in power consumption – an important consideration for a more sustainable world. While we could never have imagined that the microchip could change our lives so dramatically, this tiny yet powerful tool looks set to continue to shape our lives for years to come.

Join the discussion

Can you imagine your life now without the ubiquitous chip? Have we become too reliant on these tiny objects?

Our new online community, Mensa Community, provides a digital space for you, our members, to discuss any number of topics and issues. If you haven’t already signed up, you can log in here using your My Mensa login details.

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Chips with everything

Words: Angela McManus

They are the foundation of our digital world and can be found in everything from smartphones and cars to medical equipment. We use them in space exploration and to track the movements of our pets. Think about it: without microchips you wouldn’t be able to read this.

What is a microchip?

This sophisticated piece of equipment has dramatically changed the way we live but what exactly is a microchip? A pattern of miniature electrical switches, known as transistors, creates a set of electronic circuits on the surface of a small flat piece of silicon, known as a wafer. These transistors turn a current on and off; and millions of them, along with other components, are etched onto a single chip.

The magic ingredient – silicon – is a naturally occurring element which can conduct electricity. Silicon wafers are made using silica-containing sand, which is melted and cast in the form of a large cylinder or ingot then cut into thin slices.

Working separately, US electrical engineers Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce invented the microchip, or integrated circuit, in the late 1950s, making it possible to incorporate a roomful of equipment into a device that could be held in the palm of the hand. In turn, this made electronic equipment dramatically cheaper to manufacture and sell.

How the chip changed everything

It’s no exaggeration to say the dawning of the digital age unleashed change comparable to the Industrial Revolution. Microchips are working away every time we switch on the TV, sit at a computer or use a mobile phone. They’re an integral part of cars, electric scooters and airport check-in desks.

In some cases, the use of microchips is a matter of life and death. Consider the technology used in heart pacemakers, for example. From MRI scans to insulin pumps, it’s thought that 50% of all medical devices use integrated circuits. Having been used in operating theatres and other medical applications for some time, chips are now enabling lifesaving robotic surgery as well as remote diagnoses and remote surgery, which is revolutionising healthcare across the world.

Continual improvements in chip technology have seen a massive increase in computing power and memory function. To put it into perspective, your smartphone has around 100,000 times as much processing power as the NASA computer used in the Apollo missions to the Moon back in the 1960s and 1970s. In a relatively short space of time, we’ve come a very long way from creating the technology that put humans into space to mass manufacturing the magical pocket-size devices we all carry about today. Imagine being told in the 1970s about a smartphone? No one would have believed such things were possible, and now we can’t live without them.

As a cautionary note, it’s worth remembering the global chip shortage at the start of this decade, which led to long waits for everything from cars to household appliances. Caused by supply chain disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with an increase in demand as more of us started working remotely and needed increased connectivity, the lack of chips pushed up prices. In 2021 the car manufacturer Renault suffered significant production losses and their car production was cut by about 500,000 due to the crippling semiconductor shortage.

To infinity and beyond

Providing memory and storage for electronic devices, microchips also process and control all this data. And it is predicted that, by 2025, the world will be producing 175 zettabytes of data per year. That means if you were to store 175 zettabytes on DVDs, they’d be stacked high enough to circle the Earth 222 times.

Back in the 1960s Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, defined a theory known as Moore’s Law which changed the way consumer technology evolved. Moore believed that the number of transistors – those tiny electrical switches – that could fit on a single chip would double every two years or so. At the time, it was predicted to continue for another 10 years.

More than two decades into the 21st century many believe Moore’s Law is still valid. The theory drives the design of ever smaller transistors on a chip, which means the devices and appliances we use are faster and more energy efficient. The more we buy, the bigger the demand by consumers and so it goes on.

There are inevitable physical and economical restrictions on just how small those switches can be built. But as we look to the future, technological advances mean there are new possibilities on the horizon for the way transistors are used and applied to meet consumer demand.

For example, there has been a growing movement towards alternatives to silicon chips, such as silicon carbide and system-on-a-chip designs. With improved performance and efficiency, they offer a boost in power handling and a decrease in power consumption – an important consideration for a more sustainable world. While we could never have imagined that the microchip could change our lives so dramatically, this tiny yet powerful tool looks set to continue to shape our lives for years to come.

Join the discussion

Can you imagine your life now without the ubiquitous chip? Have we become too reliant on these tiny objects?

Our new online community, Mensa Community, provides a digital space for you, our members, to discuss any number of topics and issues. If you haven’t already signed up, you can log in here using your My Mensa login details.

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