Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Quantitatively, how amazing are modern electronics technologies and materials?

I've talked before about how condensed matter/materials physics/engineering is so ubiquitous that it somehow fades into the background, and people don't appreciate how truly wondrous it is.  I thought I'd compile a few stats to try and drive this home.
  • A typical car contains something like 30,000 discrete parts, if you count down to the smallest individual screw.  By comparison, a typical microprocessor has around (to make the numbers work out conveniently) 3 billion transistors.  That's a factor of a million more constituents.  Bear in mind that essentially all of those transistors work, without fail, for a decade or more.  (When was the last time you actually had a processor failure, rather than a power supply or hard drive issue?).   Imagine taking a million cars, and claiming that they will all run, flawlessly, with no broken parts, for a decade.  
  • Parallel manufacturing is a wonderful thing.  If you built the 3 billion transistors serially at a rate of one per second, it would take around 95 years to put together a processor.  
  • There is a famous study that proved that Kansas is actually flatter than a pancake.  Perfect flatness would correspond with their flatness metric equalling 1, and they found that Kansas has a flatness of 0.9997.  By that measure, a 300 mm silicon wafer used to fabricate chips would have a flatness on the order of 1 - (30 nm/300mm) = 1 - 10-7.  If your dining room table was that flat, the typical height of a surface defect would be well under the wavelength of visible light.  If Kansas was that flat, the tallest feature in the state would be a few cm high.
  • The worst silicon purity acceptable for Si electronics processing is around 0.1 parts per billion.  That means that a single impurity atom in such silicon is more rare than, well, you as a member of the population of the earth.  
  • We have the ability to position particular devices with (roughly) few nm precision and accuracy on a processor of cm scale.  That's equivalent to being able to place an item on your desk in a particular place to within about 1/50th the diameter of a human hair.
If none of this impresses you, you're pretty jaded.


Adam said...

I'm sure that a Toyota has a few microprocessors, so it'll have more parts than your typical microprocessor... But you already knew you were cheating with that one ;-)

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post!
Showed it to my parents; they were impressed. Good advertisement for condensed matter physics/engineering!