Jul 14th 2017

Microelectronics — Where Small Is Mighty

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When the first digital computers appeared in the 1940s and 1950s, they were often described as “giant electronic brains.” People imagined that the supercomputers of the future would be even more powerful and even bigger.

Technology prophet and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, in his novel “The City and the Stars,” pictured the great Central Computer of the remote future city of Diaspar as filling an entire underground city below the streets of the human city.

IBM Model 7030 Stretch Early Supercomputer (Don DeBold)

No one then imagined that, thanks to the microelectronics revolution, the ultra-powerful computers of the future might fit in the palm of your hand.

When Power Is Micro-Miniaturized

But the needs of aerospace defense and the emerging space program called for compact computer power. And as Samar K. Saha writes at Scientific Research Publishing, what we now call microelectronics got its start only a few years later in 1958, with the introduction of the first integrated circuit.

Things have been getting smaller — and more powerful — ever since. The relationship of small size to big power is not an accident. When it comes to electronic signals and circuits, smaller means faster, because a transmission does not need to go as far to do its job.

Wireless sensor signal conditioning microelectronic chip (UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences)

For most of the last six decades, the most familiar microelectronics devices have been computers, with each technology generation being smaller, faster, more powerful and cheaper. This trend has culminated with the smartphone. But the technology is now being incorporated into even smaller devices that may contain computers but do not necessarily correspond to our notion of a computer.

Smartphones already demonstrate this trend. Your phone contains not only a computer but also a display screen that can show movies, cameras for homemade video and selfies, as well as the — scarcely noticed — radio link that allows your phone to connect to the internet. (And also make phone calls.)

From Smart Rings to Smart Cars

In the consumer marketplace the leading frontier for microelectronics is currently the trend toward wearable tech. The most familiar of these items are smart watches and wristwatch-style exercise monitoring devices. Coming along close behind them, according to Yahoo! Finance, are other wearables such as “smart rings” and other jewelry. Smart fabrics may be next in line.

But the impact of wearable tech, large as it may be, is likely to be dwarfed by the other emerging microelectronics devices that together are building out the Internet of Things. The most spectacular of these technologies is the self-driving car, which may be on its way to a driveway near you.

Self-driving cars require not just computer processing power — they also rely on a host of sensors and communications devices to provide the car’s computer with the information it needs to drive safely. Only a few years ago, self-driving cars were regarded as science fiction, mainly because few expected that the needed sensors would be small enough or cheap enough to be practical for automobiles.

Although computers have gotten the lion’s share of attention, most of the power of microelectronics operates behind the scenes, quietly enhancing the building blocks of communications. As RF Globalnet reports, Northrop Grumman, a long-time leader in the field, continues to set the pace with innovations such as miniature, high-power microwave amplifiers.

These microwave amplifiers mean higher data rate transmissions over longer distances — capabilities that will make everything from today’s wearables to tomorrow’s self-driving cars more powerful and capable. And we can only begin to guess at the full impact that these technologies will have.

You’re probably already using wearable tech in your daily life, but what about playing an active role in developing the technologies behind it?

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