What is an Integrated Circuit (IC)?

Instructor: Babita Kuruvilla

Babita has an electrical engineering degree and has taught engineering students and college students preparing for medical and dental college admissions tests.

In this lesson, we will learn about integrated circuits (ICs) and explore their origin, types, and benefits. We will also look at different ways that they are packaged.

Apollo, Meet Smartphones!

You might've heard that smartphones that we use today have more computing power than the Apollo space vehicle that landed on the moon. You also might have heard about Moore's Law. Back in 1965, Intel's co-founder Gordon Moore famously predicted that computing power would advance at an exponential rate.

It's mind-boggling to hear that technology keeps advancing at such a fast pace. So, how did it happen? What changed in the past few decades that allowed us to advance so quickly in technology?

Integrated Circuits

When scientists first started building computers, they used something called vacuum tubes to direct the flow of current in one direction.

Vacuum tubes used on ENIAC
Vacuum tubes

One of the first computers called ENIAC used around 19,000 vacuum tubes. If one of those vacuum tubes broke down, the engineers had to go through each and every one to find the broken tube. Think how long that took!

Scientists knew that they needed a better method to build circuits; for that, they needed smaller circuit parts like transistors, diodes, and resistors that could fit on a small circuit board.

So, that's how we got the integrated circuits (ICs) - a collection of electronic components that are interconnected and embedded onto or within semiconductor blocks like Silicon. What's neat is that the connections between them are etched using ultraviolet light, through a process called photolithography.

Integrated circuit on a microchip
Integrated circuit on a microchip

Today, we use these IC chips in the circuits of computers, cameras, watches, automobiles, aircraft, robots, space vehicles, communication, and switching networks, to name a few.

Advantages

IC chips speeded up the pace at which the electronics industry took off, and now we find them in most of the convenience appliances and tools that we use daily. That's because there are many advantages to using integrated chips in designs.

Miniaturization of Circuits

Once we had smaller circuit components, we could make smaller circuits for devices like the smartphone. Some of the newest integrated circuits have several million components within a space of 1cm2. Imagine several million teeny little components all connected and packed together on one block!

An average chip is only one-tenth of an inch long, so you could fit more of these chips on a circuit board and improve the processing capability of the device.

Solution to Interconnection Problems

Connecting the different components is a big problem with conventional circuits. There are many joints that need to be soldered together and troubleshooting a broken link takes time. The IC avoids that problem by giving us an already interconnected circuit on a ready-to-use chip.

Fast Response

Because the electronic components are very close together on the chip, there is little loss due to resistance of the wiring. This means quicker connections and that we could build high-speed computers.

Better Performance

In discrete-component circuit, the electronic components are spread over a large space and so could be exposed to different ambient temperatures. A variation in temperature affects the consistency in performance of the circuit.

On an integrated circuit chip, since millions of components are all packed into a small space, they all experience the same environment. This means that all components are exposed to the same ambient temperature, and their performance is not compromised.

Inexpensive

We find integrated circuits in almost all electronic devices. As the demand for these chips went up, their price dropped dramatically.

Types

Based on function, the complexity and the number of components on a chip changes. We can classify integrated circuits into four main categories:

  • Small-scale integration (SSI) have 20 or fewer components on the chip.
  • Medium-scale integration (MSI) are slightly more complex and typically have around 100 components.
  • Large-scale integration (LSI) are used to compute complex functions, like in a calculator, and have 100-1000 components.
  • Very large-scale integration (VLSI) are the latest computer chips that have millions of components.

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