But an impasse is near. Transistors are now crowded so tightly onto chips that their heat threatens to cook the computer: They emanate up to 300 watts of heat per square inch – five times more than an electric burner on high.
"For a long time we've been very fortunate," says John Maltabes, a visiting scholar at Hewlett-Packard with 30 years of experience in chip manufacturing. "What's happening now is economics are catching up."
Moore's law is slowing down, and it affects every computer, from the smallest to the largest. Scientists have relied, for example, on supercomputers to study particle physics and the brain – not to mention ensuring the safety of aging nuclear weapons. But grander scientific questions bring bigger price tags. Tianhe-1A, the world's fastest supercomputer at China's National Supercomputer Center in Tianjin, wolfs 4 million watts of electricity. The next-generation machine planned by the US Department of Energy will guzzle 25 million watts (the original blueprint was to consume 130 million watts, or $130 million of electricity per year, before downsizing to make its utility bills affordable).