Technology

New Type of Semiconductor Could Give Rise to Faster Electronics

Semiconductors

Researchers have discovered a new type of 2D semiconductor that could pave the way for faster, more power-efficient electronic devices in the future.

The new material is made of tin monoxide (SnO), which is composed of tin and oxygen. Since it forms one 2D layer a single atom thick, electrons are able to travel through it more easily than in standard semiconducting materials such as silicon. This property makes it especially valuable for use in transistors, the basic building block of computer chips. Thus, a variety of electronics, from standard desktop computers to highly specialized industrial machines, could be revolutionized by the new material.

The finding was made by a team from the University of Utah, led by Ashutosh Tiwari, professor of materials science and engineering. They published their results in the journal Advanced Electronic Materials on February 15, 2016.

Currently, transistors are composed of 3D materials like silicon laid out in multiple layers. While such materials do an adequate job, their drawback is that as electrons pass through the substance, they move around in all three dimensions, significantly slowing them down.

2D Semiconductor
Ashutosh Tiwari, lead researcher, showing off his newly developed semiconductor made of a 2D tin and oxygen material (tin monoxide). (Image Credits: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering)

2D materials have been a topic of research for only a few years, but already stand poised to transform the field. Since such materials are made of layers of only one or two atoms, electrons moving through them face a much smoother and faster journey.

This new material isn’t the first 2D semiconductor ever discovered; graphene, borophene, and others were found earlier. The Utah team’s tin monoxide material is unique, however, in that it is a P-type semiconductor, which works by increasing the number of “holes” available for electrons. It is the first ever stable 2D semiconductor of this kind.

The finding will make it possible to produce transistors that are smaller than those typically used in current chips. This means that more transistors will be able to fit in a single chip, resulting in faster and more powerful processors.

The benefits of occupying only one layer go beyond speed. Electrons moving through a 2D material encounter less friction than in 3D materials, meaning that chips made with the material will not heat up as quickly as current models. Such chips will also not need as much power to work effectively, making them a blessing for battery-powered devices. This has implications beyond just long-lasting smartphone batteries. It could be life-changing for those who depend on certain kinds of medical appliances, such as implanted devices that rely on batteries.

The research team is optimistic about a speedy adoption of the material by industry, since the topic is especially popular in engineering circles at the moment.