The roots of our digital lifestyles certainly are semiconductors, which allow for the creation of complex transistor structures. They store and manipulate data, which is the basis for sophisticated microprocessors. Semiconductors, which are produced from sand or clay, serve as the essential component in almost every electronic device we use today, ranging from personal computers to notebooks to cell phones. Not even cars can do without semiconductors and electronics today, because semiconductors control the air conditioning, the injection process, the ignition process, the sunroof, the mirrors and even the steering (check out BMW's Active Steering). It's only a matter of time until cars will run "by-wire" and will no longer be based on mechanical solutions. It is fairly safe to say that almost every device that requires energy relies on semiconductors for its functions.
Microprocessors are among the most sophisticated semiconductor-based products, as they are getting close to carrying a billion transistors each, and their functionality is amazing. The upcoming Core 2 dual core microprocessor based on Intel's almost-ready 45-nm process will carry as many as 410 million transistors (although most are used for the 6 MB L2 cache). The 45-nm process refers to the smallest structure size of a single transistor, which is approximately 1,000 times thinner than the diameter of a human hair. In this context it becomes very obvious why it makes sense to use electronics to control everything in our life: Even at larger structure sizes, producing a rather simple semiconductor is incredibly cheap, because there is so much silicon real estate.
This article covers the fundamentals of microprocessor production, but I will not go into processor history, architecture and the various products on the market. You can also find many additional resources on the Web:
- Intel Silicon Technology
- Microprocessor History (by W. Warner, hosted by IBM)
- Wikipedia: Microprocessor Wikipedia's microprocessor page covers processor types and includes lots of links to various manufacturers and to additional Wiki pages on processor specifics.
- Wikipedia: Microprocessors (Category) The microprocessor section contains even more links with information on products and technology.