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Does Moore’s Law Apply To New Energy Technologies?

Blogger Ron Reynolds is the director of the Center.

The electronics revolution started by its founders in Silicon Valley is the gold standard for a new technology that has quickly transformed everyone’s life. Moore’s Law is a commonly used way to quantify that rate of change. Nearly 50 years ago, Gordon Moore famously predicted that the number of transistors able to fit on a silicon chip would double every 18 to 24 months. That prediction has held true now for over 40 years. That means the technology has progressed at an exponential rate—an astounding feat that stands out in its rarity.

When new technologies are developed, proponents always wish Moore’s Law will apply to them. Lately proponents of the development of clean energy technologies are issuing the challenge that a Moore’s Law trajectory could be achieved in their field. Will it apply? Could it apply? Are the factors that applied to transistors present in clean energy technology? And if so, could the Silicon Valley's success factors be applied?

In the case of integrated circuits, a totally new industry was being created without displacing an old industry. The technology was amenable to the application of fundamental physics and chemistry where rapid advancements in measurement and understanding were being made. Also, miniaturization was a key driver and enabler. Finally, there was cooperation between the players who developed and followed a technological roadmap.

It doesn’t seem possible that development and implementation of the whole area of alternative energy technology could proceed at an exponential rate because the current enormous energy infrastructure would have to be displaced. However, some components of the field could be Moore’s Law candidates: photovoltaics, miniaturization of integrated circuits on the power grid, or direct drive turbines for wind power. 

The subject is certainly worthy of more analysis. It’s never a good idea to set unreasonable expectations that are impossible to meet. But in areas where appropriate factors are present to suggest exponential growth is possible, there's no reason not to apply the lessons learned from Silicon Valley.

Posted In: Policy

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