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Happy Birthday to the IC

50 years ago today, Fairchild Semiconductor's Robert Noyce received the first ever patent for the first commercially available silicon IC.

But while the commercialisation of the technology is relatively new, the concept of the microchip has been around for a while. In the late 50s, Texas Instruments was independently working on similar devices based on germanium. Around the same time, UK research establishments such as Plessey Semiconductor were putting their efforts into silicon and gallium arsenide in their bid for the IC market.

Although Geoffrey Drummer of the UK's Telecom Research Establishment first envisioned the technology in 1952, TI's Jack Kilby is widely credited with the device's co-invention and was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work.

More than ten years after Drummer's discovery, Fairchild created the first ever IC. The logic circuit contained just one transistor switch, three resistors and a capacitor. The continuation of Moore's Law has since led to today's cutting edge chips containing billions of transistors, being capable of trillions of calculations per second and integrating a raft of functionalities – from wireless connectivity, to chemical analysis and image sensing.

A British success story
The microchip's power, functionality and low cost has also led to its application in virtually every part of modern life and the UK's electronic design sector continues to be at the forefront of this innovation.

UK based researchers, technologists and manufacturers are now creating chips and systems capable of genetic disease detection, determining the build up of pollutants in the oceans, emitting light that sterilises drinking water or medical instruments, analysing the structural integrity of high speed rail lines and the early identification of injuries in racehorses.

The UK is home to more than 40% of Europe's independent electronic design community. Its 11,500 companies and 250,000 people form an ecosystem worth £23billion per year to the British economy.

You only have to look inside your mobile phone to see the British contribution. There, you will likely find an ARM processor, a CSR Bluetooth and GPS chip, a Dialog Semiconductor power management device and an Imagination Technologies graphics core.

The next challenge: A more human way of processing
In a few cycles of Moore's Law the transistor will no doubt shrink to hit the atomic size barrier. As this is approached, electrons become harder to control and variability is introduced. Many ICs will become unusable and reliable manufacturing processes prohibitively expensive. But an answer may come from the brain's evolution.

Work being undertaken by Professor Steve Furber at the University of Manchester is attempting to model the brain and its behaviour in a project called SpiNNaker. Unlike silicon, the brain's billions of neurons and countless reconfigurable connections, isn't particularly affected by variability. Adults lose neurons every day.

The SpiNNaker project runs one million ARM processor cores and even with this processing power it still only simulates a tiny fraction of the number of neural connections. The work should allow us to more accurately understand the link between the brain's biological structure and its functionality. By determining how it copes with this variability, we can also start to create tolerant chips that cope with these defects.

Moving beyond Moore's Law
An end to Moore's Law will not be the end of progress, however, and the UK is evermore at the forefront of research into new microchip materials and configurations.

It is very easy to get excited about the future application of IC technology for the next 50 years too. Industry is already creating 3d IC structures in order to break free of Moore's Law and there are numerous new technologies to consider such as plastic electronics, MEMS and carbon nanotubes, which increase the scope for semiconductor innovation.

Five novel technologies in development at British companies and universities
• A chip capable of detecting single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in DNA has been developed which gives results in minutes instead of days. The device can be configured to detect any SNP, making it applicable to medicine, agriculture and pharmacology.
The technology has been developed by Professor Chris Toumazou, founder and CEO of Toumaz Technologies and DNA Electronics.
• Researchers at Southampton University have created a chip to detect nutrients and pollutants at the ultra low concentrations found in the ocean.
Developed in collaboration with the National Oceanography Centre, the 'lab on chip' is capable of measuring temperature, salinity and the concentrations of nitrites, nitrates, phosphate, iron and manganese.
• Plessey Semiconductor, in collaboration with Cambridge University, is developing an led that uses Gallium Nitride to release light at wavelengths lethal to bacteria – 265nm.
The low cost technology will be made available during this decade and will be powered by solar cells. Plessey believes it will be adopted in developing economies or disaster zones to create clean drinking water, as well as in the developed world to replace chlorine sterilisation methods. Additional uses include the sterilisation of medical instruments.
• Accelerometer chips are being developed at the University of Southampton that, among other applications, are capable of detecting weaknesses in high speed rail networks. The highly sensitive chips monitor how a section of track behaves whilst a train is on it. Any changes in behaviour can be used to determine changes in its structural integrity.
• The Royal Veterinary College is developing systems based on MEMS accelerometer chips that analyse the gait pattern of individual horses. By monitoring for small changes in these patterns it may be possible to identify and rest injuries earlier. The technology could also be applied to professional athletes.

Derek Boyd, NMI

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