The science is simple: what is microelectronics?

Microelectronic devices are an integral part of modern life, whose core transistors enable significant technological advances. Researchers now face the challenge of creating new microelectronics capable of faster and more sustainable data processing.

What is microelectronics?

Microelectronic devices, such as microchips in computers and cell phones, process and store information. They are essential to our lives. They are essential for business operations, help monitor the spread of disease, supply homes with electricity through the power grid, and conduct scientific research to combat major challenges such as the climate crisis.

The cornerstone of every microelectronic device is the transistor, invented in 1940. Transistors can turn electricity on and off almost instantaneously. This feature allows you to use ones and zeros to tell the computer what to do.

Science 101: What is microelectronics?
In this Science 101: What is Microelectronics course, Valerie Taylor, director of the Division of Mathematics and Computing at Argonne National Laboratory, and Yuepeng Zhang, senior materials scientist, discuss ultra-small components in computers, smartphones, and more. Microelectronics is essential for running a business, stopping the spread of disease, supplying homes with electricity through the power grid, and conducting scientific research to combat major challenges such as the climate crisis.

Thanks to ever-smaller transistors and other improvements, computers that used to take up an entire room in a building now fit on a laptop or even a smart watch. The cost per computational unit has also dropped dramatically.

However, in all sectors of the economy there is an urgent need for radically new forms of microelectronics, capable of collecting and analyzing unprecedented amounts of data, faster than ever before. But the science and technology that would enable such new microelectronics do not exist. One of the challenges is that the size of transistors in today's supercomputers has increased from millionths to billionths of a meter, approaching the size of an atom. In their quest for radical improvements, researchers must look for alternative miniaturization paths and solutions beyond current types of computer architecture.

In addition to much faster data processing, researchers have to solve two big problems. First, microelectronics in computers, data centers and networks consumes about 10% of the world's electricity, and this figure is increasing. A single supercomputer can require enough electricity to power nearly 10,000 homes. Second, the manufacturing of advanced microelectronic products involves many different materials. Shortages of some of them could lead to supply chain disruptions that could hurt the economy.

The Argonne National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy deals with these problems. Researchers are looking for new approaches to microelectronics and computer architectures that are faster and more energy efficient and involve fewer critical materials. For example, the most efficient information processor is the human brain. Scientists are therefore striving to develop microelectronic and computer architectures that mimic the brain. Environmentally friendly production processes for microelectronics are also being developed. Success will keep the United States at the forefront of microelectronics research and development and reinvigorate our microelectronics industry.

To learn more about microelectronics, check out the 21St Si├Ęcle Microelectronics playlist.

What is a microelectronics infographic

Credit: Argonne National Laboratory

What is microelectronics?

The technology behind the power of computers, smartphones, self-driving cars and more.

Ultra-small electronic components process information in all smart electronic devices. In 1969, they led a spacecraft with two astronauts that landed on the moon and returned safely. Today, they touch our lives in the form of cell phones, computers, smart TVs, global positioning systems, and more. Increasingly powerful microelectronics are essential for the advancement of scientific research.

Microelectronics has entered a new phase thanks in part to advances in artificial intelligence (AI). Autonomous vehicles are already making their way onto the market. On the horizon are artificial intelligence-based materials that resemble skin and diagnose possible health problems.

But microelectronics is at a crossroads. Without radically new technology, the total energy devoted to all microelectronics will soon reach dizzying proportions.

Argonne accepts this challenge. Our scientists are exploring new pathways to materials and devices that take device usage into account, leading to more energy efficient and environmentally friendly microelectronics for the 21st century.

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