Is the End of Moore’s Law Near?

There’s been a lot of talk about the end of Moore’s law.

As you know, this law describes a trend that’s been running for over 50 years. Semiconductor companies keep figuring out ways to cram more and more transistors and other components into a given area of silicon.

But semiconductor companies are finding it harder and harder to shrink the size of the circuits they build. It’s that shrinkage that has allowed us to enjoy faster and cheaper electronics devices going back decades.

It’s been a great run so far.

Today, we all walk around with pocket supercomputers thanks to the unstoppable improvement in electronic miniaturization. It permeates our entire economy, and fortunes have been made.

But what about when it ends?

There are physical limits to how small we can shrink a circuit using conventional tech. Eventually, we’ll need to replace traditional technology with something new if we are going to continue to see improvements.

One way to temporarily “cheat” the looming end of Moore’s law is by going three-dimensional. If you can stack multiple layers of components in a single circuit, you can increase the density — and the performance — of a given device.

But the real key lies on completely changing how computers work…

In 2007, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Albert Fert, from France, and Peter Grünberg, from Germany, the Nobel Prize in physics.

It all had to do with magnetism.

In the late ’80s, these two physicists independently discovered a previously unknown phenomenon called “giant magnetoresistance,” or GMR. This discovery quickly changed one aspect of computing — the way hard drives read data.

Hard drives store data on a spinning platter covered with discrete bits of magnetic material. Reading the data stored in this way is possible with a sensor that can detect the magnetic differences between one area and the other. The differences are encoded as ones and zeroes — basic binary data.

However, as tech firms tried to squeeze more and more data onto a hard drive — meaning the magnetic bits also have to be smaller — they were hitting limits to what they could read using existing technology.

That’s where the discovery of GMR came in. It all has to do with spin.

Most of our electronics work by measuring or changing the electron charges within circuits. However, charge isn’t the only property of an electron. The other is called spin.

If we think of electrons as tiny little spheres, then we can visualize them spinning. In a nonmagnetic material, the spin states are randomly distributed. But in a magnetic material, they are largely aligned. In a hard drive’s read/write head using GMR, when one layer’s magnetic field is in alignment with another, it has low resistance. When the spin is in opposite directions, resistance increases.

The changing resistance can be used to read magnetically stored data with greater sensitivity. Thanks to that discovery, computer hard drives with far more data capacity became possible by the 1990s. Megabytes turned into gigabytes and then terabytes.

But there’s much more than can be done with spin. An article published by the Nobel committee in 2007 says, “It is equally interesting that this technology may be regarded as the first step in developing a completely new type of electronics, dubbed spintronics.”

Extremely fast circuits, dense computer memories and even quantum computers are possible — along with other products we can’t even imagine right now.

For innovators that invent them, the profits will be historic.

To a bright future,

Ray Blanco

The Daily Reckoning