Semiconductors are at the heart of electrical and electronic devices. Another term that is used interchangeably is transistors: semiconductor components that provide computational power to a device. Typically made of silicon, semiconductors are behind the names "Silicon Valley" (the global center for technology and innovation, in California) and "silicon economy," which makes it easy to grasp just how vital these computing elements are to the tech world.
Their fabrication is quite complex, involving numerous photolithographic and chemical processes. Manufacturers continuously strive to produce smaller semiconductors, and the reason for this is the improved performance and reduced power consumption provided by smaller components. A smaller semiconductor means that more transistors can be placed on a chip, therefore enhancing performance. Furthermore, a smaller size also allows for more computing tasks to be performed at a lower temperature.
Semiconductor size – or node size – is indicated in nanometer, a unit that equals one billionth of a meter (or 0.000000001m). Chips with 14 and 10 nanometers are currently in mass production, but the industry continues to aim for smaller node sizes. The catch here is that sizes may not always be what they seem. Although 7-nanometer processor chips are already in the market (manufactured by Samsung and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC), these companies define a 7-nanometer node similarly as Intel defines its 10-nanometer node. TSMC is working on a 5-nanometer product with a density of 171.3 million transistors per square millimeter, and both TSMC and Samsung have announced plans to manufacture 3-nanometer nodes.
It's a constant battle in the mobile market, as semiconductor makers need to keep their technology attractive for mobile device manufacturers to acquire their products. CPUs require more computing power than a mobile chipset, and for this reason, their node sizes are, as of today, not nearly as small as in mobile chipsets. However, CPU manufacturers are fighting the same battle for the fastest, most advanced, and smallest technology.