In the world of semiconductor manufacturing, the term “technology node” refers to the specific set of technology standards and manufacturing processes that define the minimum feature sizes of the circuits created on a semiconductor device, commonly a microchip. Over the decades, the drive to scale down technology nodes has been relentless, guided by the quest for more power-efficient, higher performing, and cheaper integrated circuits. This journey has transformed the landscape of technology from bulky and slow to sleek and fast. Here, we explore this dramatic evolution from microns to nanometers and speculate on the future beyond conventional scaling.

The Beginnings: Micron-Scale Technology

In the early days of the semiconductor industry, the size of transistors and the circuits they composed was limited by the photolithographic and fabrication technologies available at the time. The first commercial integrated circuits in the 1960s had feature sizes as large as 10 microns (10,000 nanometers). By today’s standards, these dimensions are gigantic, but at the time, they were revolutionary, enabling the first practical uses of electronic computers and other digital devices.

The Drive to Miniaturization: Moore’s Law

In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, observed that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years, a prediction that came to be known as Moore’s Law. This observation has not only been a guideline for the industry but also a self-fulfilling prophecy driving technological and economic growth. Moore’s Law has persisted as the benchmark for the industry, pushing the limits of photolithography and material science to continually shrink the critical dimensions of semiconductor technology nodes.

Breaking the Micron Barrier: The Advent of Deep UV Lithography

As the industry approached the one-micron mark in the late 1980s, traditional photolithography techniques were reaching their physical limits. The innovation that allowed further scaling was the introduction of Deep Ultraviolet (DUV) lithography, which uses shorter wavelengths of light to create smaller features. This technology enabled the steady march below the one-micron threshold, reaching nodes like 800nm, 350nm, and down to 250nm and 180nm in the 1990s.

The Nanometer Era Begins

The transition to the nanometer scale was marked by the 130nm technology node introduced in the early 2000s. This era not only brought further shrinkage of feature sizes but also significant challenges in terms of power leakage, variability, and other quantum effects that become pronounced at such tiny scales. These challenges necessitated innovations in materials, such as the introduction of high-k metal gates and strained silicon, and in device architectures, including FinFETs, which were first introduced at the 22nm node to combat short-channel effects that degrade transistor performance at small scales.

The Age of FinFETs and EUV

The adoption of FinFET technology marked a significant shift in transistor design. Unlike traditional planar transistors, FinFETs are built vertically, allowing for better control of the channel and thus significantly reducing leakage current and boosting performance. As technology moved toward and below the 10nm mark, however, even more advanced techniques were required. Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography, long in development, finally began coming online, offering the ability to pattern incredibly small features using even shorter wavelengths of light.

What Lies Beyond Nanometers?

As the industry approaches physical and economic limits of traditional scaling at sub-7nm nodes, the question becomes: what’s next? Several potential paths include further innovations in 3D transistor design, alternative materials like graphene or transition metal dichalcides (TMDCs), and even exploratory devices that leverage quantum mechanical effects in entirely new computing paradigms such as quantum computing.

Moreover, the industry is increasingly turning toward “More than Moore” technologies, which include integration of diverse types of computing and sensing capabilities onto a single substrate, 3D stacking of chips, and the use of advanced packaging technologies to integrate heterogeneous systems effectively.


The semiconductor industry’s journey from microns to nanometers and beyond is a testament to human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of innovation. As technology nodes have shrunk, the impact on society has been profound, enabling the modern digital age. Looking ahead, while traditional scaling may face diminishing returns, the future of semiconductor technology promises to be no less revolutionary as new materials, designs, and concepts come to the forefront, potentially setting the stage for the next great leap in technology.