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What Are the Uses of Integrated Circuits?

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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
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  • Last Modified Date: 01 September 2016
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The uses of integrated circuits as of 2011 are very widespread due to the unique advantages that they offer over that of traditional electronic circuits. They are found in every electronic device that has some type of microprocessor control, from cell phones and portable music players to gaming systems, personal computers, and other digital devices. This is because an integrated circuit (IC) or chip by contemporary 21st century standards is an extremely sophisticated device, packing up to millions of electronic components like transistors, resistors, and capacitors into an area of a few square centimeters on a wafer of silicon. The early uses of integrated circuits were fairly limited, however, when the first models were built in 1958 and 1959, as they were primitive devices at the time that were difficult to mass produce.

Jack Kilby, a researcher at Texas Instruments in the United States, is credited with being one of the first people to see the potential benefits and uses of integrated circuits. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000 for his contribution to the development of the electronic circuit. Though the concept for the IC chip can be traced to earlier research as far back as 1949 by German engineers, Kilby and another US-based researcher named Robert Noyce were the first to file patents for the idea.

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The enormous leap that the IC chip gave to electronic circuit design is based on a limitation that electronics manufacturers were facing during the late 1950s. The transistor had replaced vacuum tubes, but basic electrical components for circuits like transistors, capacitors, and resistors could only be made so small, as holding them with a tweezers and soldering them onto a circuit board was becoming increasingly difficult as they became smaller and smaller. The idea of etching the functionality of these components into a wafer of silicon eliminated the need for individual soldering of handheld components, and the uses of integrated circuits began to skyrocket once manufacturing methods were perfected in the mid- to late 1960s.

While the very first integrated circuits were referred to as small-scale integration (SSI) circuits and contained only a few dozen components, they were vital to aerospace projects at the time, such as controls for the US nuclear Minuteman missile system and digital computers used by the US Apollo Moon mission program. These uses, as well as needs by the US Navy, accounted for the bulk of early demand for integrated circuits as of 1962. By 1968, uses of integrated circuits had begun to spread to consumer electronics, with their ability to process frequency modulated (FM) sound in televisions.

As the number of components that could be placed on a chip was scaled up, the uses of integrated circuits became much more widespread. Medium-scale integration (MSI) chip models contained hundreds of components by the end of the 1960s, and large-scale integration (LSI) could put multiple thousands of components on one chip five years later. From there, the growth of how many components could be packed into an area of a few square centimeters increased exponentially. Very-large-scale integration (VLSI) allowing for hundreds of thousands of connected components in the early 1980s, and three-dimensional integrated circuit (3D-IC) designs as of 2011 allow for millions or billions of components to be packed into a network that is interconnected both horizontally and vertically on multiple layers of semiconductor wafer.

As of 2011, the multiple control and mathematical processing functions that an integrated circuit can perform has made them ubiquitous devices in most consumer electronics from radios and televisions to calculators and digital watches. The uses of integrated circuits are widespread throughout industrial plants and in robotics, as well as for controls in automobile and aircraft systems. As they become more sophisticated and inexpensive to manufacture, they are also found in disposable items such as greeting cards that play music. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags on disposable consumer product packaging that retail stores use to track inventory are also a common location for IC chips, with RFID tags being added to other products like passports and credit cards as well.

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