It is difficult, in this age, to imagine a world without microchips. They are part and parcel of the devices that we use for work, transportation, exercise and entertainment. They are integral to so much — from cars and smartphones to medical machines, industrial robots and data centres.
As abundant as the oxygen we breathe, the use of microchips is ever spreading. It is estimated that in 2021 1.15 trillion microchips were manufactured, which boosted the value of the sector to more than half a trillion dollars — a number that will increase to three quarters of a trillion dollars within five years.
The distinctive nature of microchips is rapidly evolving. From one generation to the next, microchips can take on more functions, leading to the creation of new products which has reshaped many sectors.
A microchip has many other names, including chip, computer chip, and an integrated circuit, which is a collection of electrical circuits set on a very small flat piece of silicon.
This is where Silicon Valley in California — where the world's leading technology companies are based — got its name. On the chip, tiny transistors act as miniature switches that can turn the electric current on or off. Transistors can be arranged on the chip by adding or removing certain materials until a network of interconnected shapes is formed.
Silicon is the preferred raw material. Unlike electrically conductive metals used in other fields, silicon is a semiconductor whose conductive capabilities can be controlled by adding other materials to it, such as phosphorous.
Silicon is also cheap. It is extracted from a specific type of sand called silica sand, which is found in nearly every beach, making silicon the second most abundant element on Earth after oxygen.
A microchip of the size of a human fingernail contains billions of transistors, and the properties of the chip are measured in nanometers (one billionth of a metre; and hence it is named ‘nanotechnology’).
While the diameter of the human erythrocyte is 7,000 nanometres and the average diameter of a virus is 14 nanometres, the latest microchip technology has found insertions of 10 nanometres in the diameter on the chip. The smaller the size of the add-ons, the greater their number in a single chip, and the greater the performance and functionality of the chip.
Chips are divided into two general categories. The first category is the ‘logic chip’, which is like the brain in electronic devices as it processes information to achieve a task, and it includes central processing units (CPUs) in computers, graphics processing units (GPUs) with optical tasks, and neurological processing units (NPUs) dedicated to machine learning.
The second category is the memory chip, which stores information and comes in two types — one of which is the dynamic random-access memory, or DRAM, which saves information as long as the device is working, while the second is the NAND flash, which does the same thing even if the device is turned off.
The American company Intel is the most prominent developer of microchips — especially for the sectors of personal computers and corporate servers. Its services in the first sector accounted for 51 per cent of its revenue in 2021, while what it provided for the second sector accounted for 33 per cent of its revenue during the same period.
The rest of its profits came from solutions for the Internet of Things (IoT), retail, industry, healthcare, memory and storage products, autonomous driving technology, and programmable chips.
The ‘Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited’ (TSMC) is the largest manufacturer of microchips in the world. It produces chips according to orders from client companies. Indeed, many chip designers use this company to produce their products.
The list of companies active in the microchip sector includes the American Qualcomm that designs and markets these products and services in the wireless communications sector. Its ‘Snapdragon’ technology is present in many devices for mobile communications.
China makes 25% of the microchips produced in the world, followed by Taiwan with 21%, and South Korea with 19%. In the US — considered to be the cradle of innovation — the share decreased from 37% in 1990 to 12% per cent today.