DAVID POGUE The transistors that power our stuff are about as small as they can get, unless scientists can come up with a new way of packing them ever-more tightly together.
To see one of those possible solutions, I've crossed the country to visit the IBM Research and Development..."kitchen?"
So this is Moore's Law of Italian cooking?
FRANCES ROSS (IBM Research Division) That's right. What we're going to do is explain why it's so important to get the transistors smaller and smaller.
DAVID POGUE Frances has a pretty appetizing way of visualizing this law and its limitations. Like pepperoni slices, the transistors on a silicon chip are flat.
Okay, so here's our...
FRANCES ROSS Silicon wafer.
DAVID POGUE ...silicon wafer.
FRANCES ROSS Now, these are the old-fashioned transistors. They're much larger, and you can see that you can't put that many onto each wafer.
DAVID POGUE So this would be a 1960 iPod?
FRANCES ROSS I think so, yes. This would be a '60s type of thing.
So, let's take off these old transistors and replace them with some new transistors.
DAVID POGUE Oh, these are much smaller!
FRANCES ROSS Yes, these new transistors are much smaller.
DAVID POGUE Technology has marched on.
FRANCES ROSS That's right. It's Moore's Law, in action.
DAVID POGUE So, in other words, all we have to do is make the transistors smaller every year, forever, and our gadgets will always be more powerful and more compact.
FRANCES ROSS That would be wonderful, but we can't make our pepperoni slices much smaller than this. And these transistors are now packed together about as close as we can get them.
DAVID POGUE The pizza party can't go on forever. There's a limit to how small you can shrink the transistors. If you reduce the surface area of a transistor too much and place it too close to its neighbor, electricity starts to leak, causing a short circuit. Not good.
FRANCES ROSS We've run out of area, so there's only one way to go, and that's upwards.
DAVID POGUE Slim Jims?
FRANCES ROSS That's right. This is a vertical transistor. Instead of having flatter, smaller transistors we go in the other direction.
DAVID POGUE Excuse me, vertical transistors?
FRANCES ROSS Vertical transistors.
DAVID POGUE With little toothpicks on the bottom?
FRANCES ROSS That's just for demonstration purposes.
DAVID POGUE Oh, okay.
By building vertical transistors, called nanowires, Frances can increase surface area, without bringing the transistors closer together, so no short circuit.
Ingenious. So this is what you're doing at IBM? You are making these?
FRANCES ROSS That's right. They're called nanowires, and the real thing is about a million times smaller than this.
DAVID POGUE A million times smaller?
FRANCES ROSS That's right.
DAVID POGUE Well, that would be hard to see!