Silicon has been the backbone of processors for decades, but it’s rapidly approaching its physical limits: making a chip on a process smaller than 5 nanometers is usually impossible without introducing problems. How is Moore’s Law for chip complexity going to survive? Stanford researchers have a solution: augment it with materials that outdo silicon where it counts. They’ve pinpointed two semiconductors, hafnium diselenide and zirconium diselenide, that can be made extremely thin (just three atoms thick) while self-insulating far more effectively than silicon. You could get transistors that are 10 times smaller than the smallest you get from silicon alone — 5nm chips would seem bloated compared to what’s possible with these diselenides.
The scientists stress that you’d still need silicon, but the combination of these new materials with silicon could still lead to far more complex processors, much longer battery life, and other advantages that usually come with shrinking transistor sizes. Moore’s Law can’t last forever (the laws of physics won’t allow it), but this could delay the inevitable for many years.
As with many semiconductor breakthroughs, the biggest challenge is simply getting this to market. The Stanford team needs to improve the contact between transistors and these circuits, not to mention improve the reliability of the insulation itself. And of course, there’s the not-so-small matter of putting these semiconductors into a full-size, production-worthy chip. It could take years before this work makes a difference, and by that point the chip industry might already be struggling. If it doesn’t take too long, though, this might give the computing industry a much-needed lifeline.