Miniaturization has been a trend in electronics since the invention of the transistor in 1947, and computers started to double the amount of computing power they could fit into any given chip every 18 months. While that trend may accelerate or decelerate as we hit certain limits, here are four new and potentially revolutionary trends that will transform electronics forever.
Memristors are circuit board components that have a “memory”, hence the name. They remember the charge or state they had prior to being turned off, whereas modern computers are full of components that forget everything when turned off. The greatest advantage of this is in the power savings, since you can turn off devices and they boot up immediately in the same prior state. Hewlett Packard is already designing computers that would use this technology. This is separate from the spintronics that can store data in twice as many states as traditional electronics, enabling much greater memory density and CPUs.
Graphene is a structural variant of carbon. It can be used to create flexible yet strong sheets that conduct electricity. Newer materials like silicine and phosphine have similar but somewhat different properties. These materials are already finding applications in ultra-thin televisions. They may lead to many things seen in science fiction like cheap solar panels pasted on walls and rooftops to generate electricity. They are already being used to barcode pharmaceuticals to track them, preventing illegal sales of prescribed medications and counterfeiting of these drugs.
Conducting polymers don’t yet offer the performance of material used in 2D electronics. However, their biggest benefits include having a lower cost to manufacture and not requiring the mining in distant corners of the globe for rare earth metals like coltan. Their potential biocompatibility means they are likely to be used in implanted health monitoring devices or artificial organs while eliminating the risk of problems like the metallosis (metal poisoning) seen with some knee replacements.
Computers that almost do all the design work for you
Computer aided design or CAD began as a digital replacement for drawing diagrams on paper. 3D CAD allowed designers to build 3D models to test for interference fits between components, while advances in computing allowed them to test the assembly of parts based on projected variation of manufacturing. More recently, it has been possible to import the assembled subcomponents into a composite whole and run them through simulations to see how the design performs. While this doesn’t eliminate the need for product testing entirely, it shaves month or even years off of the design process for complex items like cars and planes.
Computing software has evolved far enough to give input on the design process itself. One example of this is the evolutionary design algorithm used to combine many different designs and look for a few designs that meet the set parameters, resulting in totally new designs no one had previously thought of. Another case in point is the new circuit design software programs that use similar logic to design optimized circuit board designs. The CAD software of Altium helps you rediscover your design passion by letting you set design parameters and focus on the hardware interfaces, customer requirements and testing of products that cannot be automated. The software removes the need to tediously lay out all of the components on the board and calculate the interference of each circuit path, freeing up designers to work out more advanced problems.
Memistors will likely dramatically reduce the energy needs for electronics, while 2D electronics make cheap, mass produced electronics possible. Organic electronics enable flexible devices like bendable sheets that can act like tablet screens and are likely to make implantable devices much safer for patients. Advances in design software are removing the tedious detailed design work and calculations, so they can work on actual problem solving.
Photograph by wilhei