Ending our dependence on Big Silicon
The search for silicon’s successor is on: Tech experts are looking to the next generation of 2-D materials to replace, or at least enhance, the material that has so far made all of our gadgets possible, the Wall Street Journal reports. Though silicon has served as a reliable base for the last 70 years, it is nearing the limits of its potential to support technological advancement. Moore’s law — a theory that the number of transistors you can fit onto a silicon microchip doubles every year — is slowing down, and researchers have identified hundreds of materials that fall under the 2-D family that could help us fit more transistors onto ever thinner microchips, to power the pocket-sized supercomputers of the future.
What are 2-D materials? The atom-thin substances include black phosphorus, transition metal dichalcogenides and boron nitride nanosheets, as well as the forerunner of them all, graphene, the discovery of which earned its makers a Nobel prize in physics. Though recently obscure, these materials are now regularly fabricated in labs and can be found in devices on sale today.
Graphene has already found a number of applications, having been used to cool smartphone batteries, make athletic gear more durable, and to manufacture prototypes for bulletproof armour. Graphene has even been used to develop biosensors with applications such as detecting covid-19 particles and other pathogens in the air, or scanning virtually any biological matter for contamination.
But 2-D materials’ key use will be in the development of microchips, with scientists positing that the development of chips that support photons rather than electrons could significantly accelerate our computer power, as light is a far faster means of communication than electricity. In addition, 2-D materials could also beat silicon when it comes to chip stacking, which is already common in flash memory and mobile devices. Because 2-D materials are so thin, stacking the chips would add significant power to a device without increasing its size, while the heat dissipating qualities of graphene mean devices would not be in danger of overheating.
The graphene-silicon combo could also create better cameras that are ultrathin and ultrasensitive, because graphene can yield optical sensors a hundred times more sensitive to light than those made with silicon. Graphene-based materials can also make inexpensive, high-resolution infrared mobile cameras, which are already in the prototype stage.
Future applications of 2-D materials we’re likely to see over the next decade include adding new features to known devices, like infrared vision to smartphones, as well as creating computing devices that are far more powerful and more energy efficient than those we know today. This could enable new forms of human-computer interaction, such as augmented-reality systems that fit into everyday eyeglasses.
But 2-D materials still can’t beat silicon on manufacturability, and that may be the key to keeping us silicon-dependent. Researchers are still looking for the right balance between desirable traits, cost-efficiency, and manufacturability, before being able to take 2-D materials mainstream. For now, 2-D materials occupy a marginal space in the semiconductor and tech industry at large, but as we stretch silicon to its absolute limits with our research into quantum computing, and our demand for ever faster and smaller devices, we are paving the way for their heyday.