Computer chips are one of the fastest developing technologies, currently packing up to 2,000 transistors across the width of a human hair and switching them on and off 300 billion times a second. But in past years the industry has been facing a growing problem of energy loss through current "leakage", prompting researchers to develop chips that consume far less.

Now two leading chip manufacturers, Intel and IBM, have announced independently breakthrough materials based on the element hafnium that can dramatically reduce the amount of energy loss. While IBM has not yet disclosed details their material, Intel say that the material will be integral to the 45-nanometre transistors in their forthcoming range of processors.

As the demand for fast clock speeds has increased, the electrodes in computer chips have been forced to steadily reduce in size. Unfortunately this has allowed for the prevalence of quantum effects, whereby electrons tunnel through insulating barriers and cause current to leak. To combat this, manufacturers have been using dielectrics – materials that tend to concentrate electric fields within themselves – as the insulating layers, which can be made thick enough to combat tunnelling while maintaining the fast clock speeds.

Intel's new alloy of hafnium has a higher dielectric constant (the measure of a material's dielectric ability) than silicon dioxide, which is currently the industry's standard insulator, and can reduce current leakage more than five times over. However, a more reassuring consequence for some will be the ensured continuation of "Moore's law", a long-established axiom predicting that, on average, transistor counts double every two years.