By Dennis D. Draeger, Aiglatson Foresight Research
The entire electronics industry is approaching a considerable shake up as Moore’s Law nears its inevitable tipping point. However, new ways of processing information are on their way, and these electronics spinoff fields will develop devices with reduced power consumption, increased speed, and greater functionality at reduced costs while enabling a broad range of new applications.
What is changing?
Electronics has produced several spinoff fields of study. An early example is photonics which began in the 1960s by using light to perform the same functions as electronics, but it matured as a field to the optical fibers critical in the infrastructure of the internet, optical computing, and other applications. Recently Intel released its silicon photonic data cables which more than double the amount of data transferred on networking cables, from a top speed of 40 gigabytes per second with conventional copper cables to an easy 100 gigabytes per second. Considering the great benefits photonics has brought, scientists have continued to deviate from traditional electronic techniques to develop new methods with new advantages.
Spintronics has been a budding field for more than a decade, and provides great market potential with several companies developing it for information processing. By exploiting an electron’s spin instead of—or along with—its charge, spintronics offers a radically different way to store information—within the spin itself. Spintronics promises to combine the logic functionality of semiconductors with the storage capability of magnets for higher speeds, greater density and lower power consumption. Spintronics still has several limitations, but researchers are finding ways to overcome the concerns. Last year, researchers in Australia used spintronics theories in developing the first single atom quantum computer on a silicon chip. This technology, that they are continually developing, might be compatible with current semiconductor technology.
Atomtronics seeks to mimic electronic devices in a new way, by developing equivalents of electronic devices using atoms instead of electrons. Researchers do not expect atomtronic devices to replace electronic ones—atoms actually move slower than electrons and atomtronics requires super cooled atoms. Instead, scientists see a future where such devices enable significant advances in fields such as quantum computing. Currently, atomtronics is still very experimental and provides greater insight on the science more than potential applications, but scientists continue to advance the field.
The science behind ionics is nothing new, but its potential for practical application is just beginning. A team of materials scientists have created a gel-based audio speaker that exploits the electrical charge of ions instead of electrons. In doing so, they have demonstrated for the first time how ionic conductors could be practical for a much wider range of applications than previously theorized. Ionic conductors could replace certain electronic devices because they can be transparent (particularly advantageous for optical applications), stretched without losing resistivity (a concern with current stretchable electronic devices), and incorporated into biological systems due to the biocompatibility of the gels. Ionics’ primary potential, as the researchers see it, is in soft machines for implantable medical devices and potentially transhumanist devices. The human body functions on signals carried by charged ions, and so this new technology could be a perfect fit especially as it merges with piezoelectric techniques to charge them via motion. However, the potential applications range even farther with smart windows that cancel outside noise or improved haptic feedback on touchscreens.
Why is this important?
These and related technologies such as valleytronics and straintronics are in varying degrees of development, but as with photonics before them, their potential for the electronics industry, even at the consumer level, is huge. A green movement at the individual level could be more popular and even more impactful as devices consume less power, and wearable computing could not only be more flexible but also charged by the movement of the wearer. Ultimately, the real benefit of these technologies will come as they converge, and the electronics industry is likely to find new, less homogenous ways to grow and develop.