There used to be a universal rule used by tech fortune-tellers called Moore’s Law – named after computer engineer Gordon Moore. In 1965, he wrote a paper that stated the power of computers would double every 12 months, while the cost of that technology would halve over the same period – and for close to five decades, his law remained pretty solid.

That is, until Intel, the computer-chip maker that Moore cofounded, reported the rate of doubling processing power had slowed to 30 months. Next-generation products that relied on the assumption that chips would shrink or become more powerful now had to make do with older-than-expected technology, and it caused a bit of a ruckus back in 2017.

So, what’s the problem? Simply put, it’s physics. Computer engineers got more performance out of chips by shrinking their size, but chip design has developed to where the space between components is down to a dozen or so nanometres. We simply cannot squeeze more juice out of these tiny spaces.

At the moment, the solution is to innovate in two other areas instead – heat management and power density. Both are fatal to technology efficiency and offer large leaps forward in shrinking devices.

To manage heat, products are including gels, pastes and newly designed flexible fibres instead of heavy, rigid materials. If we can create an environment for our devices to constantly stay cool, we’ll be able to overwork them without fear of anything blowing up.

Power density, though, is another issue. Basically, it’s the amount of power that can be drawn from a set amount of space. The fuel of the chip, as it were. As computers and other electronics have been getting smaller and faster, more and more power has had to be generated from less space – and battery technology is struggling to keep up. It’s why your mobile battery feels like it’s draining so much faster than it used to with previous models – because it is.

Making matters worse is that the two are related. Storing energy, drawing power and charging all generate heat. Pushing one boundary cripples the others. But there’s still hope, because consumers are demanding better battery life, more power and devices that don’t overheat. As long as there’s an incentive to create the devices of tomorrow that meets these needs, manufacturers will work tirelessly to achieve Moore-level leaps forward.

Laurens Grisel

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