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Silicene Structure concept art (via UT at Austin)

 

While some researchers are hard at work to achieve quantum computing on a chip, scientists from the University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School are busy making history. The research team recently created an atom-thick transistor made from silicon particles, called silicene, which may revolutionize computer chips.

 

There had been talk about the development of silicene, but it had yet to be constructed, until recently. Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Deji Akinwande and lead researcher Li Tao successfully built the first-ever silicene chip last month. The team looked to current graphene-based chip development for guidance, but discovered a major issue at the onset – silicene was sensitive to air.

 

To circumvent this issue, Akinwande and Tao worked with Alessandro Molle of the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems in Agrate Brianza, Italy, to construct the delicate material in an airtight space. The team was able to form a thin silicene sheet by condensing silicon vapor onto a crystalline silver block in a vacuum chamber. Once the sheet was formed, silicene atoms were placed on a thin silver sheet and covered with a layer of alumina that was one nanometer thick. Once formed, the team was able to peel the silicene sheet off of the base and move it to an oxidized-silicon substrate. The result was a functional silicene transistor that joined two metal groups of electrodes.

 

The transistor was only functional for a few minutes before crumbling due to instability in air. While the transistor’s capabilities were rather archaic, the UT team was successfully able to fabricate silicene devices for the first time ever through low-temperature manufacturing. As silicone is a common base for computer chips, the researchers are confident that the technology could be adopted relatively easily, to make for faster, low-energy digital chips.

 

The team of scientists plans to continue its research to develop a more stable silicene chip. Having a super-thin silicene transistor could incredibly enhance the speed of computing, but it isn’t without competition. Graphene-based transistors have been under development for quite some time and may also be a solution to the question of how to enhance computing capabilities. Both technologies, however, may fail to surpass the potential power of the Università degli Studi di Pavia in Italy’s newest quantum chip. The chip features entanglement capabilities, potentially allowing an entire network to function as one unit. The new technology may also make cyber threats a thing of the past.

 

At present, emerging chip technologies are all still in need of further development before they are ready to hit the market. No one knows which technology will prevail, but it certainly is exciting.

 

The Cockrell School’s Southwest Academy of Nanoelectronics, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Army Research Office and the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies Programme funded the University of Texas at Austin-based project.

 

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