March 25, 2004

Diamonds to Replace Silicon

The semiconductor industry will be surprised to hear that a 'nanotechnology expert' is claiming that billion-dollar foundries will be replaced by table-top boxes, "marking the end of the silicon era and the potential death of many factory-floor jobs." In a confused piece, Canada IT manages to predict the imminent death of industry and imply that the effects of nanomaterials on the environment are entirely unknown. We will leave readers to judge whether this is the result of sloppy journalism, or the experts field being science fiction rather than science.

Posted by Cientifica at March 25, 2004 09:54 AM | TrackBack

Several points:
1) Apparently, Mulhall's "chip factory in a box" was based on standard rapid prototyping techniques. I've seen researchers developing and predicting this for several years. It's one of several methods that might replace silicon fabs. Speculative, yes, but not wacky.

2) The effects of nanoparticles depend on the particle. Since many of them haven't been invented yet, it's reasonable to say the effects are unknown. Does that mean dangerous? In many cases, no. Nanoparticles can be as different as a rock and a soap bubble. But...

Some mineral nanoparticles appear to create free radicals. Mix them with soil, and they might make soil bacteria unhappy. Is this effect worth worrying about? We don't know. If so, what concentration is bad? We don't know. But something as small as a molecule, more stable/persistent than most molecules, with the entire surface catalytic, deserves special attention.

3) There have certainly been examples of irresponsible alarmism--articles citing gray goo and nanoparticles side by side as reasons to halt current research. But this article was simply trying to condense a series of talks into a page of text. I didn't see anything irresponsible here.


Posted by: Chris Phoenix, CRN at March 25, 2004 05:17 PM

I gave that presentation that the journalist wrote about, and while I am a faithful subscriber to TNT I'm befuddled by the portrayal of that article. In the lead paragraph, the journalist writes that large factories will be "gradually" replaced, not imminently as the TNT blog states. Later near the end of the piece the journalist does use the word "soon" but nowhere does he say imminent. He does say accurately that "advances in 3D manufacturing using nanotechnology are already taking place." Moreover, ZDNet and many other technology publications have carried many articles about printable chips replacing silicon.
Is the end of the silicon era "soon to come" as the journalist wrote (his term not mine)? It is a reasonable bet that silicon is on the way out due to the heat and speed issue, and work already being done with new materials. Just how "soon" that is will be seen. But it is not unreasonable with the current move to printable chips to begin talking about that new era.
As I wrote in The Futurist a few months ago, the accusation of such statements being science fiction instead of science is frequently leveled against these types of forecasts, despite there being many examples of exponential technology acceleration occurring just as Hans Moravec has accurately identified historically. I appreciate that TNT has to separate the wheat from the chaff, but to pick on the replacement of silicon with printed chips is not the place to do this. I think that the blog has to be careful not to shoot from the hip so much, because it can backfire against the normally excellent work done in the newsletter.

Posted by: mulhall at March 25, 2004 06:32 PM
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