In Electronics, what is an IC?

B. Turner

An integrated circuit (IC) is a silicon chip that has been embedded with electrical circuits and transistors. A typical IC contains millions of microscopic transistors per square millimeter, and the amount of circuits these chips can hold is increasing exponentially each year. Integrated circuits have replaced traditional transistors and vacuum tube technologies, which has greatly reduced the size of many electrical devices. IC chips may also be referred to as microchips, semiconductors or silicon chips.

A piece of silicon.
A piece of silicon.

An IC is made using a sliver of pure silicon as a base. This sliver, or chip, of silicon is coated with aluminum in a process known as photolithography. This process etches a pattern of transistors into the silicon, making the pattern a permanent part of the silicon chip. These transistor patterns are developed by software and electronics manufacturers, and are often proprietary. The variations in pattern can influence how the circuit works, and what applications it can be used for.

Integrated circuits are chips embedded with electrical circuits and transistors.
Integrated circuits are chips embedded with electrical circuits and transistors.

Once an IC chip is complete, it can be used in a wide variety of electrical applications. Nearly every electronic component in the world today contains one or more integrated circuits. These chips are found in computers, telephones, vehicles, machinery and medical equipment. They are used in everything from simple home appliances to complex aeronautical devices.

ICs are used in cell phones, tablets, computers and a number of other electronic devices.
ICs are used in cell phones, tablets, computers and a number of other electronic devices.

Integrated circuits can be either digital or analog, and some may even contain both of these technologies. Digital IC chips work on a binary system using combinations of zeros and ones. They are primarily found in microprocessors, computers and control devices. Analog IC units use continuous signals to transfer electrical currents. Analog chips can be found in many sensors, power supplies and amplification systems.

Beyond their infinitely small size, integrated circuits offer a number of additional advantages over transistor and vacuum technologies. Their size allows them to carry complex electrical signals in a very small space, resulting in smaller cell phones, computers, cars and other electrical devices. As IC technology improves, we can expect these devices to become even more compact.

Their small size also helps to transfer electrical signals very quickly. Because there is little distance for a current to travel within an integrated circuit, signals are transferred very fast, which speeds up processing times. This quick processing time and short travel distance also helps to improve overall efficiency, resulting in lower power consumption. This not only results in improved productivity for users, but also reduces energy expenses and helps to minimize the environmental impact of energy production.

Transistors often play a key role in an integrated circuit.
Transistors often play a key role in an integrated circuit.

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Discussion Comments


@SkyWhisperer - Well, I don’t know anything about IC chips with nanotechnology. I did, however, play with a few of these chips as an electronics hobbyist many years ago.

I remember one chip in particular – it was the IC 555 timer chip. It did exactly what its name suggested; it was used for timer circuitry.

I was able to build timer circuits that spanned anywhere from milliseconds to an entire year if I so wanted. I didn’t build anything fancy. All I did was trip a relay, and the circuit itself was simple since the IC chip did all of the work.

It’s still a popular chip for timers from what I understand, and is used in a a lot of portable applications. The IC datasheet for this chip says that it can use up to 15 volts for its operation.


@allenJo - I agree. But I think once we start getting into things like nano particles there will be virtually no limit to the amount of transistors that you can put on IC components.

Nanotechnology will make it possible to incorporate greater levels of sophisticated circuitry at even molecular levels onto the chips.


Integrated circuits are one place where Moore’s law makes its presence felt. Like the article says, the number of transistors increases every year, and this is what leads to the continual increase in computer processing power every year too.

It’s also what makes things like CPUs run very hot and need insulation to protect them from overheating. I think the heat constraints will do more to limit the amount of resistors that can be placed on these chips more than the technology itself will.

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