The Silicon Dioxide Solution

How physicist Jean Hoerni built the bridge from the transistor to the integrated circuit

17 min read
Photo of physicist Jean Hoerni.
Photo: Hoerni: Wayne MIller/Magnum Photos; Photo-IllustratIon: Brandon Palacio

physicist Jean Hoerni Practical Theorist: On 1 December 1957, physicist Jean Hoerni conceived the planar process, a technique used to manufacture essentially all silicon transistors and micro- chips today. Photo: Hoerni: Wayne MIller/Magnum Photos; Photo-IllustratIon: Brandon Palacio

Not plastic bags, nor metal screws, nor cigarette butts. No, the commonest human artifact today is the transistor—invented 60 years ago this month by Bell Labs physicists John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. Millions of these subminiature switches populate computers, cellphones, toys, domestic appliances, and anything else that carries a microchip. Exactly how many transistors are around is hard to know, but several years ago Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel Corp. and author of the famed Moore’s Law, made an educated guess: more than 1018—that’s one quintillion—transistors are produced annually. “We make more transistors per year than the number of printed characters in all the newspapers, magazines, books, photocopies, and computer printouts,” Moore told me recently. “And we sell these transistors for less than the cost of a character in the Sunday New York Times.”

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Royal Mail Is Doing the Right Thing With Drone Delivery

Drones are actually the best way of delivering mail to far-flung islands

2 min read
A large drone with twin propellers stands idle on a remote airport runway as a postal worker walks towards it with two large mail bags

Eight-ish years ago, back when drone delivery was more hype than airborne reality (even more so than it is now), DHL tested a fully autonomous delivery service that relied on drones to deliver packages to an island 12 kilometers off Germany’s North Sea coast. The other alternative for getting parcels to the island was a ferry. But because the ferry didn’t run every day, the drones filled the scheduling gaps so residents of the island could get important packages without having to wait.

“To the extent that it is technically feasible and economically sensible,” DHL said at the time, “the use of [drones] to deliver urgently needed goods to thinly populated or remote areas or in emergencies is an interesting option for the future.” We’ve seen Zipline have success with this approach; now, drones are becoming affordable and reliable enough that they’re starting to make sense for use cases that are slightly less urgent than blood and medication deliveries. Now, thinly populated or remote areas can benefit from drones even if they aren’t having an emergency. Case in point: The United Kingdom’s Royal Mail has announced plans to establish more than 50 new postal drone routes over the next three years.

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Simple, Cheap and Portable: A Filter-Free Desalination System for a Thirsty World

Suitcase-size device makes seawater potable

4 min read
A black hard case contains a white device with beige layers with wires connecting to electronics on the top of the interior of the case.

The unit weighs less than 10 kilograms, does not require the use of filters, and can be powered by a small, portable solar panel.

M. Scott Brauer

A Portable Desalination System Makes Water Potable—Without a Filter

Payal Dhar (Freelance Blogger)

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