Integrated circuit

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Computing hardware and infrastructure; Electricity and Electronics

Integrated circuit showing memory blocks, logic and input/output pads around the periphery
Integrated circuit showing memory blocks, logic and input/output pads around the periphery
Microchips with a transparent window, showing the integrated circuit inside. Note the fine silver-colored wires that connect the integrated circuit to the pins of the package.
Microchips with a transparent window, showing the integrated circuit inside. Note the fine silver-colored wires that connect the integrated circuit to the pins of the package.

A monolithic integrated circuit (also known as IC, microcircuit, microchip, silicon chip, or chip) is a miniaturized electronic circuit (consisting mainly of semiconductor devices, as well as passive components) that has been manufactured in the surface of a thin substrate of semiconductor material.

A hybrid integrated circuit is a miniaturized electronic circuit constructed of individual semiconductor devices, as well as passive components, bonded to a substrate or circuit board.

This article is about monolithic integrated circuits.


Integrated circuits were made possible by experimental discoveries which showed that semiconductor devices could perform the functions of vacuum tubes, and by mid-20th-century technology advancements in semiconductor device fabrication. The integration of large numbers of tiny transistors into a small chip was an enormous improvement over the manual assembly of circuits using discrete electronic components. The integrated circuit's mass production capability, reliability, and building-block approach to circuit design ensured the rapid adoption of standardized ICs in place of designs using discrete transistors.

There are two main advantages of ICs over discrete circuits: cost and performance. Cost is low because the chips, with all their components, are printed as a unit by photolithography and not constructed a transistor at a time. Performance is high since the components switch quickly and consume little power, because the components are small and close together. As of 2006, chip areas range from a few square mm to around 350 mm2, with up to 1 million transistors per mm2.

Advances in integrated circuits

The integrated circuit from an Intel 8742, an 8-bit microcontroller that includes a CPU running at 12 MHz, 128 bytes of RAM, 2048 bytes of EPROM, and I/O in the same chip.
The integrated circuit from an Intel 8742, an 8-bit microcontroller that includes a CPU running at 12 MHz, 128 bytes of RAM, 2048 bytes of EPROM, and I/O in the same chip.

Among the most advanced integrated circuits are the microprocessors or "cores", which control everything from computers to cellular phones to digital microwave ovens. Digital memory chips and ASICs are examples of other families of integrated circuits that are important to the modern information society. While cost of designing and developing a complex integrated circuit is quite high, when spread across typically millions of production units the individual IC cost is minimized. The performance of ICs is high because the small size allows short traces which in turn allows low power logic (such as CMOS) to be used at fast switching speeds.

ICs have consistently migrated to smaller feature sizes over the years, allowing more circuitry to be packed on each chip. This increased capacity per unit area can be used to decrease cost and/or increase functionality—see Moore's law which, in its modern interpretation, states that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years. In general, as the feature size shrinks, almost everything improves—the cost per unit and the switching power consumption go down, and the speed goes up. However, ICs with nanometer-scale devices are not without their problems, principal among which is leakage current (see subthreshold leakage and MOSFET for a discussion of this), although these problems are not insurmountable and will likely be solved or at least ameliorated by the introduction of high-k dielectrics. Since these speed and power consumption gains are apparent to the end user, there is fierce competition among the manufacturers to use finer geometries. This process, and the expected progress over the next few years, is well described by the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS).

Popularity of ICs

Only a half century after their development was initiated, integrated circuits have become ubiquitous. Computers, cellular phones, and other digital appliances are now inextricable parts of the structure of modern societies. That is, modern computing, communications, manufacturing and transport systems, including the Internet, all depend on the existence of integrated circuits. Indeed, many scholars believe that the digital revolution brought about by integrated circuits was one of the most significant occurrences in the history of mankind.


A CMOS 4000 IC in a DIP
A CMOS 4000 IC in a DIP

Integrated circuits can be classified into analog, digital and mixed signal (both analog and digital on the same chip).

Digital integrated circuits can contain anything from a few thousand to millions of logic gates, flip-flops, multiplexers, and other circuits in a few square millimeters. The small size of these circuits allows high speed, low power dissipation, and reduced manufacturing cost compared with board-level integration. These digital ICs, typically microprocessors, DSPs, and micro controllers work using binary mathematics to process "one" and "zero" signals.

Analog ICs, such as sensors, power management circuits, and operational amplifiers, work by processing continuous signals. They perform functions like amplification, active filtering, demodulation, mixing, etc. Analog ICs ease the burden on circuit designers by having expertly designed analog circuits available instead of designing a difficult analog circuit from scratch.

ICs can also combine analog and digital circuits on a single chip to create functions such as A/D converters and D/A converters. Such circuits offer smaller size and lower cost, but must carefully account for signal interference (see signal integrity).



Rendering of a small standard cell with three metal layers (dielectric has been removed).  The sand-colored structures are metal interconnect, with the vertical pillars being contacts, typically plugs of tungsten.  The reddish structures are polysilicon gates, and the solid at the bottom is the crystalline silicon bulk.
Rendering of a small standard cell with three metal layers ( dielectric has been removed). The sand-colored structures are metal interconnect, with the vertical pillars being contacts, typically plugs of tungsten. The reddish structures are polysilicon gates, and the solid at the bottom is the crystalline silicon bulk.

The semiconductors of the periodic table of the chemical elements were identified as the most likely materials for a solid state vacuum tube by researchers like William Shockley at Bell Laboratories starting in the 1930s. Starting with copper oxide, proceeding to germanium, then silicon, the materials were systematically studied in the 1940s and 1950s. Today, silicon monocrystals are the main substrate used for integrated circuits (ICs) although some III-V compounds of the periodic table such as gallium arsenide are used for specialised applications like LEDs, lasers, solar cells and the highest-speed integrated circuits. It took decades to perfect methods of creating crystals without defects in the crystalline structure of the semiconducting material.

Semiconductor ICs are fabricated in a layer process which includes these key process steps:

  • Imaging
  • Deposition
  • Etching

The main process steps are supplemented by doping, cleaning and planarisation steps.

Mono-crystal silicon wafers (or for special applications, silicon on sapphire or gallium arsenide wafers) are used as the substrate. Photolithography is used to mark different areas of the substrate to be doped or to have polysilicon, insulators or metal (typically aluminium) tracks deposited on them.

  • Integrated circuits are composed of many ovelapping layers, each defined by photolithography, and normally shown in different colors. Some layers mark where various dopants are diffused into the substrate (called diffusion layers), some define where additional ions are implanted (implant layers), some define the conductors (polysilicon or metal layers), and some define the connections between the conducting layers (via or contact layers). All components are constructed from a specific combination of these layers.
  • In a self-aligned CMOS process, a transistor is formed wherever the gate layer (polysilicon or metal) crosses a diffusion layer.
  • Resistive structures, meandering stripes of varying lengths, form the loads on the circuit. The ratio of the length of the resistive structure to its width, combined with its sheet resistivity determines the resistance.
  • Capacitive structures, in form very much like the parallel conducting plates of a traditional electrical capacitor, are formed according to the area of the "plates", with insulating material between the plates. Owing to limitations in size, only very small capacitances can be created on an IC.
  • More rarely, inductive structures can be built as tiny on-chip coils, or simulated by gyrators.

Since a CMOS device only draws current on the transition between logic states, CMOS devices consume much less current than bipolar devices.

A random access memory is the most regular type of integrated circuit; the highest density devices are thus memories; but even a microprocessor will have memory on the chip. (See the regular array structure at the bottom of the first image.) Although the structures are intricate – with widths which have been shrinking for decades – the layers remain much thinner than the device widths. The layers of material are fabricated much like a photographic process, although light waves in the visible spectrum cannot be used to "expose" a layer of material, as they would be too large for the features. Thus photons of higher frequencies (typically ultraviolet) are used to create the patterns for each layer. Because each feature is so small, electron microscopes are essential tools for a process engineer who might be debugging a fabrication process.

Each device is tested before packaging using automated test equipment (ATE), in a process known as wafer testing, or wafer probing. The wafer is then cut into rectangular blocks, each of which is called a die. Each good die (plural dice, dies, or die) is then connected into a package using aluminium (or gold) wires which are welded to pads, usually found around the edge of the die. After packaging, the devices go through final test on the same or similar ATE used during wafer probing. Test cost can account for over 25% of the cost of fabrication on lower cost products, but can be negligible on low yielding, larger, and/or higher cost devices.

As of 2005, a fabrication facility (commonly known as a semiconductor fab) costs over a billion US Dollars to construct, because much of the operation is automated. The most advanced processes employ the following techniques:

  • The wafers are up to 300 mm in diameter (wider than a common dinner plate).
  • Use of 90 nanometer or smaller chip manufacturing process. Intel, IBM, NEC, and AMD are using 90 nanometers for their CPU chips, and AMD , Intel and NEC have started using a 65 nanometer process. IBM and AMD are in development of a 45-nm process using immersion lithography.
  • Copper interconnects where copper wiring replaces aluminium for interconnects.
  • Low-K dielectric insulators.
  • Silicon on insulator (SOI)
  • Strained silicon in a process used by IBM known as Strained silicon directly on insulator (SSDOI)


The earliest integrated circuits were packaged in ceramic flat packs, which continued to be used by the military for their reliability and small size for many years. Commercial circuit packaging quickly moved to the dual in-line package (DIP), first in ceramic and later in plastic. In the 1980s pin counts of VLSI circuits exceeded the practical limit for DIP packaging, leading to pin grid array (PGA) and leadless chip carrier (LCC) packages. Surface mount packaging appeared in the early 1980s and became popular in the late 1980s, using finer lead pitch with leads formed as either gull-wing or J-lead, as exemplified by Small-Outline Integrated Circuit. A carrier which occupies an area about 30 – 50% less than an equivalent DIP, with a typical thickness that is 70% less. This package has "gull wing" leads protruding from the two long sides and a lead spacing of 0.050 inches.

Small-Outline Integrated Circuit (SOIC) and PLCC packages. In the late 1990s, PQFP and TSOP packages became the most common for high pin count devices, though PGA packages are still often used for high-end microprocessors. Intel and AMD are currently transitioning from PGA packages on high-end microprocessors to land grid array (LGA) packages.

Ball grid array (BGA) packages have existed since the 1970s. Flip-chip Ball Grid Array packages, which allow for much higher pin count than other package types, were developed in the 1990s. In an FCBGA package the die is mounted upside-down (flipped) and connects to the package balls via a package substrate that is similar to a printed-circuit board rather than by wires. FCBGA packages allow an array of input-output signals (called Area-I/O) to be distributed over the entire die rather than being confined to the die periphery.

Traces out of the die, through the package, and into the printed circuit board have very different electrical properties, compared to on-chip signals. They require special design techniques and need much more electric power than signals confined to the chip itself.

When multiple dies are put in one package, it is called SiP, for System In Package. When multiple dies are combined on a small substrate, often ceramic, it's called a MCM, or Multi-Chip Module. The boundary between a big MCM and a small printed circuit board is sometimes fuzzy.

History, origins, and generations

The birth of the IC

The integrated circuit was first conceived by a radar scientist, Geoffrey W.A. Dummer (born 1909), working for the Royal Radar Establishment of the British Ministry of Defence, and published in Washington, D.C. on May 7, 1952. Dummer unsuccessfully attempted to build such a circuit in 1956.

A precursor idea to the IC was to create small ceramic squares (wafers), each one containing a single miniaturized component. Components could then be integrated and wired into a bidimensional or tridimensional compact grid. This idea, which looked very promising in 1957, was proposed to the US Army by Jack Kilby, and led to the short-lived Micromodule Program (similar to 1951's Project Tinkertoy). However, as the project was gaining momentum, Kilby came up with a new, revolutionary design: the IC.

The first integrated circuits were manufactured independently by two scientists: Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments filed a patent for a "Solid Circuit" made of germanium on February 6, 1959. Kilby received patents U.S. Patent 3,138,743, U.S. Patent 3,138,747, U.S. Patent 3,261,081, and U.S. Patent 3,434,015. Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor was awarded a patent for a more complex "unitary circuit" made of Silicon on April 25, 1961. (See the Chip that Jack built for more information.)

Noyce credited Kurt Lehovec of Sprague Electric for the principle of p-n junction isolation caused by the action of a biased p-n junction (the diode) as a key concept behind the IC.

See: Other variations of vacuum tubes for precursor concepts such as the Loewe 3NF.


The first integrated circuits contained only a few transistors. Called "Small-Scale Integration" (SSI), they used circuits containing transistors numbering in the tens.

SSI circuits were crucial to early aerospace projects, and vice-versa. Both the Minuteman missile and Apollo program needed lightweight digital computers for their inertially-guided flight computers; the Apollo guidance computer led and motivated the integrated-circuit technology, while the Minuteman missile forced it into mass-production.

These programs purchased almost all of the available integrated circuits from 1960 through 1963, and almost alone provided the demand that funded the production improvements to get the production costs from $1000/circuit (in 1960 dollars) to merely $25/circuit (in 1963 dollars). They began to appear in consumer products at the turn of the decade, a typical application being FM inter-carrier sound processing in television receivers.

The next step in the development of integrated circuits, taken in the late 1960s, introduced devices which contained hundreds of transistors on each chip, called "Medium-Scale Integration" (MSI).

They were attractive economically because while they cost little more to produce than SSI devices, they allowed more complex systems to be produced using smaller circuit boards, less assembly work (because of fewer separate components), and a number of other advantages.

Further development, driven by the same economic factors, led to "Large-Scale Integration" (LSI) in the mid 1970s, with tens of thousands of transistors per chip.

Integrated circuits such as 1K-bit RAMs, calculator chips, and the first microprocessors, that began to be manufactured in moderate quantities in the early 1970s, had under 4000 transistors. True LSI circuits, approaching 10000 transistors, began to be produced around 1974, for computer main memories and second-generation microprocessors.


Upper interconnect layers on an Intel 80486DX2 microprocessor die.
Upper interconnect layers on an Intel 80486DX2 microprocessor die.

The final step in the development process, starting in the 1980s and continuing on, was "Very Large-Scale Integration" ( VLSI), with hundreds of thousands of transistors, and beyond (well past several million in the latest stages).

For the first time it became possible to fabricate a CPU on a single integrated circuit, to create a microprocessor. In 1986 the first one megabit RAM chips were introduced, which contained more than one million transistors. Microprocessor chips produced in 1994 contained more than three million transistors.

This step was largely made possible by the codification of "design rules" for the CMOS technology used in VLSI chips, which made production of working devices much more of a systematic endeavour. (See the 1980 landmark text by Carver Mead and Lynn Conway referenced below.)


To reflect further growth of the complexity, the term ULSI that stands for "Ultra-Large Scale Integration" was proposed for chips of complexity more than 1 million of transistors. However, there is no qualitative leap between VLSI and ULSI, hence normally in technical texts the "VLSI" term covers ULSI as well, and "ULSI" is reserved only for cases when it is necessary to emphasize the chip complexity, e.g. in marketing.

The most extreme integration technique is wafer-scale integration (WSI), which uses whole uncut wafers containing entire computers (processors as well as memory). Attempts to take this step commercially in the 1980s (e.g. by Gene Amdahl) failed, mostly because of defect-free manufacturability problems, and it does not now seem to be a high priority for the industry.

The WSI technique failed commercially, but advances in semiconductor manufacturing allowed for another attack on IC complexity, known as System-on-Chip (SOC) design. In this approach, components traditionally manufactured as separate chips to be wired together on a printed circuit board are designed to occupy a single chip that contains memory, microprocessor(s), peripheral interfaces, Input/Output logic control, data converters, and other components, together composing the whole electronic system.

Other developments

In the 1980s programmable integrated circuits were developed. These devices contain circuits whose logical function and connectivity can be programmed by the user, rather than being fixed by the integrated circuit manufacturer. This allows a single chip to be programmed to implement different LSI-type functions such as logic gates, adders, and registers. Current devices named FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) can now implement tens of thousands of LSI circuits in parallel and operate up to 400 MHz.

The techniques perfected by the integrated circuits industry over the last three decades have been used to create microscopic machines, known as MEMS. These devices are used in a variety of commercial and military applications. Example commercial applications include DLP projectors, inkjet printers, and accelerometers used to deploy automobile airbags.

In the past, radios could not be fabricated in the same low-cost processes as microprocessors. But since 1998, a large number of radio chips have been developed using CMOS processes. Examples include Intel's DECT cordless phone, or Atheros's 802.11 card.

Future developments seem to follow the multi-microprocessor paradigm, already used by the Intel and AMD dual-core processors. Intel recently unveiled a prototype, "not for commercial sale" chip that bears a staggering 80 microprocessors. Each core is capable of handling it's own task independently of the others. This is in resposnse to the heat vs speed limit that is about to be reached using existing transistor technology. This design provides a new challenge to chip programming. X10 is the new open-source programming language designed to assist with this task.

Silicon graffiti

Ever since ICs were created, some chip designers have used the silicon surface area for surreptitious, non-functional images or words. These are sometimes referred to as Chip Art, or Silicon Art, or Silicon Graffiti, or Silicon Doodling. For an overview of this practice, see the article The Secret Art of Chip Graffiti, from the IEEE magazine Spectrum.

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