One year after surviving the year 2000 problem, computer users may be blessed with huge leaps in processing speeds and capabilities. Researchers at semiconductor manufacturers are developing new generations of chips that, in just three years, will offer 15 times as many transistors and compute several times as fast as today's models.
Semiconductor designers are increasing their dependence on computer-aided design and testing to advance microcircuitry beyond the current state of the art. Demand for more and more complex chips has necessitated taking design out of the hands of engineers and into the realm of cyberspace.
Researchers are demonstrating that good things, in the form of useful amounts of power, can come in small packages. At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, researchers have been able to produce power with a generator approximately the size of a dime. The device, called a microgenerator, is one aspect of a project to create a microengine that weighs less and lasts longer than batteries used by soldiers in the field today.
Improved complementary metal-oxide semiconductor imaging technology allows entire video cameras to be integrated on a single chip, promising decreases in the price, complexity and size of cameras. Until recently, the image quality produced by these types of cameras has been less than ideal; however, the advent of active-pixel chips indicates that advancements in this arena not only are on the way, but also have arrived and are increasing practical applications of the technology.
Extreme ultraviolet lithography, a technology being developed by a consortium of U.S. national laboratories and the semiconductor industry, is a strong contender to produce new generations of computer chips with features perhaps as small as 30 nanometers.
A radical approach to semiconductor fabrication may soon lead to supercomputers the size of wristwatches. Scientists are developing logic gates based on molecular oxidation that could allow these building blocks of computers to be constructed of only a few molecules.
New production methods allow constructing semiconductors capable of operating at a fraction of the power of existing devices while delivering comparable or superior performance. These new technologies could lead to extremely efficient electronic devices, from handheld computers to tactical radios and missile warheads. The potential also exists for increased processor speeds in both military and civilian communications and computing applications.
Microprocessors capable of operating at extremely low power levels will soon fly in a variety of spacecraft. Radiation hardened in a novel process that allows them to be produced in existing facilities, the chips will play a role in future near-earth and deep-space missions. Moreover, the technology presents potential applications beyond aerospace circles, especially in battery-powered communications devices, sensors and portable electronics.
A research pipeline between biologists and engineers has led to a new class of microrobotics, spawning a paperclip-sized mechanical flying insect that will weigh one-tenth of a gram and will measure 1 inch from wing tip to wing tip. The result will be applied in search and rescue missions, mine detection and even planetary exploration.
Researchers are developing shape-shifting robots that can climb obstacles, drop down cliffs and fit into tunnels. Small, individual modules link to form a system that can take a multitude of shapes to travel over varied terrain. Two distinctly different designs could allow military and first responder personnel to reach past obstructions into previously inaccessible areas while remaining at a safe distance.