The flow of current through a transistor is regulated by tiny switches, known as gates, which must be electronically isolated. As chips get smaller, the insulating material, traditionally silicon dioxide, has gotten thinner and thinner. Reduced to only a few atoms thick, silicon dioxide is apt to leak current, putting up a road-block to further technical advancement.
A major innovation has been the development of better insulators made of an alloy of the element hafnium, which reduces heat loss and conserves power. Hafnium-based insulators are now used in the 45-nanometer generation of chips made by Intel, shown here below a chip from 1993.