From cities that never sleep to remote rural villages, one technology is changing how we live and work. From the smartphones in our pockets to the vast datacentres powering the internet, from electric scooters to hypersonic aircraft, pacemakers to weather-predicting supercomputers – inside every one of them, unseen and unsung, are tiny pieces of tech that make it all possible: semiconductors.
These are the basic building blocks of modern computation. Semiconductor devices called transistors are the tiny electronic switches that run computations inside our computers. Scientists in the US built the first silicon transistor in 1947. Before that, the mechanics of computing had been performed by vacuum tubes, which were slow and bulky. Silicon changed everything.
Manufacturing transistors out of silicon allowed them to be made small enough to fit on a microchip, opening the gates to a rush of gadgets that have become smaller and smarter by the year. “Being able to miniaturise these transistors allows us to do things we couldn’t have imagined in previous generations,” says John Neuffer, chief executive of the Semiconductor Industry Association. “All because we can put a massive computer onto a tiny chip.”
The pace of innovation was unprecedented. Chips began to be miniaturised at such a steady rate it was as if the technology was following a law. First stated about 50 years ago by Gordon Moore, co-founder of microchip giant Intel, Moore’s Law predicted that the number of transistors that you could fit on a chip would double every two years.
Until very recently, Moore’s Law was proved right. Only now, when attempts to shrink transistors any smaller are bumping up against the limits of physics, has the pace of miniaturisation slowed. Early transistors could be seen with the naked eye. Now a tiny chip holds many billions of them. More than anything else, it is this exponential improvement in manufacturing that has driven the digital revolution.
But silicon, the element at the heart of this revolution is a surprisingly humble substance, and one of the most common on the planet. Silicon is found in minerals that make up 90% of the Earth’s crust. A technology that has spread across the world is made from one of the most ubiquitous substances on it.
Silicon feeds a $500bn (£410bn) chip industry that in turn powers a global tech economy worth an estimated $3tn. The semiconductor business has also become one of the most interlinked in history, with raw materials coming from Japan and Mexico and chips made in the US and China. The chips are then shipped around the world again to be installed in devices that end up in people’s hands in every country in the world.
“The silicon that is the essence of these chips probably goes around the world two or three times,” says Neuffer. But that vast worldwide network can trace its origins to just a handful of very specific places.