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In celebration of the 30th Anniversary of NASA Tech Briefs, our features in 2006 highlight a different technology category each month, tracing the past 30 years of the technology, and continuing with a glimpse into the future of where the technology is headed. Along the way, we include insights from industry leaders on the past, present, and future of each technology. This month, we take a look at the past 30 years of Electronics & Semiconductors.

The Heart of Electronics: The IC

Nearly 50 years ago, Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby produced a rough device that consisted of a sliver of germanium, with protruding wires, glued to a glass slide. It was initially rejected by industry, until Kilby’s boss challenged him to design a calculator that would have the same power as the large desktop models, but would fit in a pocket. Kilby’s electronic calculator also was the first commercial application of his original rough device — the integrated circuit (IC).

Kilby’s invention went on to create the modern computer industry, and most of today’s electronic products would not exist without it. Not only did the IC grow Texas Instruments, it also grew the entire computer industry and changed the way we live, perhaps more so than any other technology.

Kilby’s chip enabled man to reach the Moon, doctors to diagnose and treat illnesses in ways never thought possible, manufacturers to make more and better products, and cell phones to fit in our shirt pocket.

“The digital revolution has changed the ways in which societies function, from communication, to travel, to work, to entertainment, and to warfare,” said Dave Valletta, senior vice president of worldwide strategic sales for Vishay Intertechnology. “In addition, the rate of technological changes has itself accelerated, which has commercial, social, economic, and political ramifications.”

Although the IC, the transistor, and the single-chip microprocessor all had been invented by 1976, the past 30 years have produced their share of innovations in electronics, including the introduction of the personal computer in the early 1980s, cell phones and portable devices in the 1990s, and the Internet.

“Ongoing development of the Internet, the World Wide Web, and related electronic networks has created an always-on, 24/7, multiple point worldwide communication capability,” explained Valletta.

“Advances in semiconductors made practical the network routers and gateways that enabled the scaling of the Internet to a global, billion-node-plus network,” said Sam Fuller, vice president of research and development for Analog Devices. “One of the most significant advances is the emergence of CMOS as the driver for Moore’s Law, leading to the relentless advances in semiconductor products. The doubling in density and performance every two years or so over the past 30 years has been an incredible technological march,” he said.

Moore’s Law — a prediction made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 — states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years. While this “law” has held reasonably true for more than 40 years, some experts predict that within ten years, that progress will slow down.

“Everyone who has tried to predict the end of Moore’s Law over the past 30 years has been wrong — at least everyone who predicted it would have ended by 2006,” said Fuller. “What I think is clear is that we are entering the final decade of Moore’s Law and economics will begin to slow and fragment semiconductor advancements.”

According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, worldwide chip sales are expected to total $249.6 billion this year, a 10% increase from 2005.

(Editor’s Note: Advances in electronics, specifically as they relate to the computer and computing power, will be covered in depth later this year in our December issue’s anniversary feature on Computing Technology.)

Nanoelectronics

Often referred to as molecular electronics, nanoelectronics is one of the most exciting technology areas for those anticipating the end of traditional silicon integrated circuits. Experts predict that within a decade, the level to which silicon-based circuitry physically can be shrunk will be reached, and a means to further miniaturize electronics will be needed.

Nanoelectronics is the development of circuitry that is composed of nanometer sized electronic components. To illustrate the impact of this development, a nanometer is equivalent to a billionth of a meter — a molecule of DNA is 2.5 nanometers. So, nanoscale electronics have the potential to reduce components to single-molecule sizes, enabling electronic devices smaller than anyone could ever have imagined.

More than 30 years ago, it was discovered that individual organic molecules, under the right conditions, could function as simple electronic devices. One of those materials, naturally occurring carbon — and in particular, graphite — is conducting. Carbon nanotubes, which retain some of the properties of graphite such as conductivity, are being developed as possible building blocks for nanoelectronics.

IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, is known for its nanoscale science and technology research. The facility has achieved major developments in the use of carbon nanotubes as field-effect transistors (FETs), which are a type of switch in which a semiconducting channel bridges two electrodes. Current flow between the electrodes is controlled by a third “gate,” or bridge, which usually is made of silicon. In nanotube FETs, the channel is a single carbon nanotube. FETs enable manufacturers to pack millions of transistors onto a single chip — by using carbon nanotubes, that number could be increased significantly.

Optoelectronics

An important area of the electronics field is optoelectronics, which combines the physics of light with electricity. It is based on the quantum mechanical effects of light on semiconducting materials. Optoelectronic devices convert electrical signals into photon signals, and vice versa, and are used for fiber optic communication, laser systems, remote sensing, medical diagnostic systems, and optical information systems.

The field of optoelectronics provides the ideal union between electronics and optics in everything from actually providing light, to transmitting information. The Optical Industry Development Association predicts that the market for optoelectronics components and their applications will exceed $1 trillion by 2015. The key to this growth is the applications for optoelectronics — specifically in areas such as flat-panel displays, signs, signals, automotive, and mobile appliances. The incorporation of flatpanel displays in many more diverse applications and devices — including increasingly smaller computers, PDAs, and cell phones — will make optoelectronics an even more important field in the future.

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